When Virgil van Dijk first arrived at Liverpool, one of the first things his new teammates were struck by was just how less fraught their games seemed. The chaos that used to take hold of their half of the pitch just… vanished. It had of course just been sucked up by Van Dijk, along with so much else.
One teammate has marvelled at how he is “just always in the right place”, always there, ensuring Liverpool almost never get caught out any more. As anyone around the club will tell you, that is a huge transformation from a problem going back years, and has directly led to a wider transformation.
Van Dijk is the single greatest source of their supreme defensive record, which is in turn the source of their first title challenge in half a decade, as well as this relentless record points haul – but also maybe so much more. It may yet be the source of a title win. It may yet be the source of a double.
Even if it’s neither of those feats, it is all why Van Dijk is such a worthy winner of the PFA Player of the Year award. He might well be the worthiest in decades.
That is really no exaggeration when you examine his exact effect. When Van Dijk signed, Liverpool were a mere Champions League team. They quickly became Champions League finalists, and then just as suddenly a side capable of one of the greatest points returns in English history.
So much of this stems from Van Dijk. And in that, it’s difficult to think of a Premier League player since Eric Cantona who has had such a pronounced individual effect on a team. It’s in fact difficult to think of many PFA players of the year at all that inspired such a leap.
Maybe Alan Shearer. Maybe N’Golo Kante. Maybe Peter Shilton. But the fact that’s a fair debate shows how difficult it is to argue against Van Dijk’s crowning on Sunday, certainly compared to anyone in the current season.
Raheem Sterling has of course been brilliant – and it is right he is recognised for the admirable way he has used his status to fight racism and foster social causes – but he hasn’t as a player changed the complexion of Manchester City. He’s often been a difference maker in the matches, obviously, but not the difference in such a way as Van Dijk.
If we are to have individual awards in a team sport, it is precisely this effect which should be the main factor.
And Van Dijk, after Jurgen Klopp, has been the main factor for Liverpool. On that note, it’s difficult to think of a recent Premier League signing that just fits as well as Van Dijk. That is testament to Klopp’s forensic planning with this Liverpool team.
And this Premier League points return is testament to Van Dijk as much as anyone. That is because, as pretty much all of the Liverpool players say, he has been so good against the ‘small’ teams. And that is a big thing.
One of Liverpool’s major problems – for a long time – has been getting caught out in such games. Even going back to 1995-96 and that famous 4-3 over Newcastle United, they lost the very next game to Coventry City. The very next season they lost to the same team, having just beaten Arsenal 2-1 in that Robbie Fowler penalty game.
Liverpool were just unreliable.
Van Dijk – more than anything – has made them almost infallibly reliable. Some of the squad have for a long time felt they would win title so long as he didn’t get injured. All of them enthuse about how he makes them feel unbeatable in games against the “other 14” clubs in the league.
Liverpool no longer get in situations where they are caught by a sudden break. Van Dijk is always there.
That has a further effect of calming the team, and giving them confidence, which is another key part of Van Dijk’s influence.
He is just so unruffled. His teammates say he has that natural capacity for just attuning himself to the pace of a game and his side. He brings a composure that spreads, and thereby sets a standard.
As much as anything, this has had a genuine and deep effect on Liverpool’s attack.
There is a lingering argument that attackers should still be classed ahead of defenders in such awards because they make the more regular difference in actually going and winning games, but you don’t even need to go to moments like Van Dijk’s contribution in that match-winner against Everton to counter that.
The key is that the 27-year-old makes the team feel so secure that they are assured, and emboldened when going forward. They now they can attack with more abandon, without worrying about what’s behind. Because Van Dijk is there. He removes hesitation from their game.
That is the platform that Van Dijk offers. That is the stage he is now on. There is even an argument that he is the best defender in the world.
That argument is for another day. Right now, he is the rightful PFA Player of the Year.
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