Virgil van Dijk’s poor efficiency in Liverpool’s 2-2 draw with Arsenal final weekend put him again beneath the highlight and reignited the controversy round his type.
The centre-back was partly at fault for each Arsenal objectives, clumsily diverting Martin Odegaard’s cross to Gabriel Martinelli for the opener, after which dropping Gabriel Jesus within the Liverpool field for the second.
His error-prone show was simply the most recent in a protracted line of them this season however what’s behind his struggles? And do they characterize a short lived dip in type, or are they proof of a decline?
Sky Sports activities pundit Jamie Carragher leapt to his defence within the aftermath of the sport, arguing that Van Dijk is a “much better” defender than Nemanja Vidic and describing him as “one of the best participant within the league” together with Kevin De Bruyne during the last 4 seasons.
Carragher added that Van Dijk’s affect at Liverpool was essentially the most profound by any centre-back in Premier League historical past and insisted the 31-year-old is solely having a “poor season” in his profession, “like all gamers”, together with Rio Ferdinand and John Terry.
Definitely, there might be no doubting Van Dijk’s affect following his £75m arrival at Liverpool from Southampton in the course of the 2017/18 marketing campaign. The following two years introduced Champions League and Premier League glory. Van Dijk was key to the transformation.
He completed second solely to Lionel Messi within the Ballon d’Or voting in 2019 and has been included within the PFA Crew of the Yr in three of the final 4 seasons, the one exception being the 2020/21 marketing campaign, when a cruciate knee damage restricted his involvement.
Van Dijk’s earlier imperiousness makes his drop-off extra alarming, however it is very important contemplate the context of Liverpool’s season as an entire when assessing his particular person contribution.
Liverpool’s lack of depth
There are issues everywhere in the pitch for Jurgen Klopp and most of them stem from a big collective drop in bodily depth.
After the gruelling efforts of final season, and with the profile of their squad ageing, the ferocious urgent that underpinned Liverpool’s earlier success beneath Klopp has solely been seen in patches.
In consequence, a aspect that ranked prime within the Premier League in most metrics associated to urgent final season have seen their numbers hunch dramatically within the present marketing campaign.
In response to Opta, Liverpool are registering fewer pressed sequences and forcing fewer excessive turnovers, their numbers dropping from 20.2 and 11.7 per recreation to 16.1 and 9.4 per recreation respectively.
Their common for opposition passes allowed per defensive motion, a metric which measures the frequency with which a aspect try and disrupt their opponents’ passing sequences, has modified much more starkly, from simply 9.9 final season to 11.4 now.
These points are rooted in assault and midfield, the place Liverpool are not pressurising opponents or regaining possession with the identical effectiveness, however there are vital knock-on results for these in defence, specifically Van Dijk.
Liverpool’s opponents, not subjected to the identical stage of strain on the ball, are discovering it far simpler to play by Klopp’s aspect. There are gaps to use, significantly in midfield. These gaps have left Van Dijk and his defensive team-mates uncovered.
This openness might be seen in Opta’s numbers for progress towards, a sophisticated metric which measures the variety of meters, on common, a aspect’s opponents progress upfield towards them.
Liverpool ranked prime amongst Premier Leagues sides for progress towards final season, reflecting how Klopp’s aspect efficiently stifled their opponents, however this time period they’ve fallen to eighth.
Opta’s information for defensive solidity underlines the problem.
Liverpool at the moment are defensively weaker than they have been final season in all areas of the pitch, and the distinction is most stark on the base of midfield, the place the again 4 are not afforded something like the identical stage of safety as they have been.
The dwindling energy of Liverpool’s press has compelled them to defend deeper, their begin distance, which is used to measure how far upfield a staff start their passing sequences, dropping from 45.5m final season, the very best within the division, to 43m within the present one.
It might solely seem a minor change however in observe it’s vital.
Van Dijk thrived when orchestrating Liverpool’s excessive line of defense however a aspect as soon as famed for his or her compactness and aggression off the ball now discover themselves compelled onto the again foot and struggling to adapt to the altering circumstances.
Fatigue affecting Van Dijk
Liverpool’s points in midfield and assault have undoubtedly contributed to Van Dijk’s struggles however they don’t clarify them totally. The Dutchman should have a look at himself too.
Even lower-ranking groups such Bournemouth, Brentford and Nottingham Forest have managed to trigger him vital issues this season and lots of of his errors have been fundamental ones, the repeated lapses of focus inflicting his aura to fade.
Liverpool have felt the results of fatigue each on a bodily and psychological stage after the exertions of final season, after they contested each recreation attainable, their pursuit of a quadruple operating proper till the ultimate weeks of the season and ending in heartbreak.
For Van Dijk, although, these results have been significantly acute and that’s largely right down to the sheer quantity of video games he has performed.
Certainly, because the begin of final season, solely six outfield gamers throughout Europe’s main leagues have performed extra minutes in all competitions at membership stage, whereas solely 5 have made extra begins.
Van Dijk, although, is exclusive amongst them within the sense that he has racked up these 7,545 minutes and 84 begins on the again of a serious knee damage which stored him out for many of the 2020/21 season.
Most gamers can be eased into motion after such a prolonged lay-off however not Van Dijk. As a substitute, he performed the primary 16 consecutive Premier League video games of the next marketing campaign on his approach to making 51 begins in all competitions over the course of the season.
The heavy workload has taken a toll. “Getting back from the knee damage, I performed all of the Premier League video games, as a result of I need to be on the market,” Van Dijk mentioned final month. “However what caught up with me is that I performed too many video games at a time.”
His significance to Liverpool, even now, is such that he’ll virtually all the time be known as upon when accessible and the identical is after all true at worldwide stage. Van Dijk is Netherlands captain.
The World Cup, throughout which he performed each minute of his nation’s run to the final eight, compounded his issues with fatigue this season, including to his load and in the end resulting in a hamstring damage which offered one other hurdle in his seek for type.
“I might have additionally thought earlier than the World Cup, ‘let’s relaxation a bit bit with a view to be prepared’, however I did not,” he added final month. “I feel going into the World Cup, having the World Cup, after which doing nothing for per week and coming again was perhaps not the proper choice.”
Van Dijk’s hamstring tear occurred on his third look for Liverpool in solely eight days instantly after the event, the place he had performed 5 occasions in 19 days.
However as soon as once more he needed to be thrown straight again into the Liverpool aspect after the next six-week lay-off, beginning eight consecutive video games earlier than lacking the goalless draw with Chelsea.
His efficiency of their subsequent fixture, towards Arsenal, confirmed the necessity for an extended relaxation, however with Liverpool bidding to safe as excessive a Premier League end as attainable within the remaining weeks of the season, there appears little prospect of him getting it any time quickly.
Van Dijk’s destiny tied to Liverpool’s
Van Dijk is approaching the latter years of his profession. At 31, and turning 32 in July, it might be the case that he’s nearing the top of his peak. However it’s value noting that centre-backs are sometimes capable of lengthen their finest years for longer than different outfield gamers.
Ferdinand and Terry, two of one of the best in Premier League historical past, have been nonetheless taking part in essential roles in title-winning seasons at 34 and each had performed extra video games than Van Dijk at his present age. Thiago Silva, in the meantime, remains to be going sturdy at 38.
Van Dijk does after all have a severe anterior cruciate ligament damage behind him – the sort of damage that may have lasting results – however his performances final season, when he was named within the PFA Crew of the Yr, represented a return to prime type.
His statistical output exhibits no nice change this season, both.
He’s nonetheless making important defensive interventions, nonetheless passing with the identical precision over quick and lengthy distances, and nonetheless able to producing the identical physicality. Actually, monitoring information exhibits he has clocked a better prime pace this season than he did within the final one. He might have appeared sluggish at occasions, however the tempo remains to be there.
Relatively, his greatest issues proper now are that his workload has left him jaded, a consequence, partially, of Liverpool combating on 4 fronts all through final season, and that the staff round him just isn’t functioning in the best way it did beforehand.
His return to his finest, due to this fact, relies on two issues: whether or not Liverpool can, earlier than too lengthy, grant him the interval of relaxation and recuperation he wants, and whether or not Klopp can efficiently tackle the problems and imbalances evident elsewhere in his staff.
It’s absolutely too quickly, then, to say Van Dijk is in a state of decline, or that he’s incapable of returning to his earlier stage. However he can’t be anticipated to resolve Liverpool’s issues on his personal. As a substitute, his destiny is intertwined with that of the collective.
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