This time last season, Virgil van Dijk had started 21 out of 22 games for Liverpool and was about to travel to the World Cup in Qatar, where he would play every minute of the Netherlands’ run to the last eight, culminating in a penalty shootout loss to Argentina.
His only break in the second half of a chaotic campaign back at Liverpool came as a result of a hamstring injury in January. At that point, he had started a staggering 91 games in under 18 months for club and country. All that off the back of a major knee injury.
It is little wonder his hamstring gave out, or that his form dipped to a level he described last week as “mediocre, sometimes even bad”. Most players are eased back into action after an anterior cruciate ligament injury like the one he suffered in 2020. Not Van Dijk.
Liverpool’s need was too great. He responded by helping them to the brink of a historic quadruple in 2021/22. But the workload took a heavy toll. It is only now, three years on from the injury, that the 32-year-old is looking more like his old self again.
“My injury was very serious,” he added last week. “It is not surprising that you have to get to know your knee again, so to speak. But now I don’t notice it anymore. I haven’t had to change much in my way of playing. I feel like I can do everything again.”
It looks that way too. At this point of last season, Liverpool were languishing ninth in the table, 15 points off the summit. Now, they are second, only one point behind leaders Manchester City with underlying numbers to suggest they should in fact be top.
It has a lot to do with their free-scoring attack but Van Dijk has played a crucial role too. A player who looked to have lost his aura at times last season is dominating again – and that’s despite the ongoing issues around midfield balance ahead of him. “Things have been going very well again since the summer,” he added.
With his help, Liverpool have only lost once in the Premier League this season. They have only conceded 10 goals – the joint-fewest in the division along with Arsenal. The 3-0 win over Brentford before the international break brought a third clean sheet in four games.
Van Dijk has been present throughout that run but his overall playing time is being managed in a way it wasn’t previously. He is yet to play a single minute in the Europa League. In fact, he has not even been included in the squad for two of their four group games.
That rest is keeping him fresh for the bigger assignments and a deeper look at the numbers underlines his dominance. The Dutchman may not be quite as explosively quick as in his earlier years, but rarely has he been this difficult to beat.
According to Opta, he is winning 80.5 per cent of his duels and an even higher percentage – 82.3 per cent – of his aerials, increasing from 69.5 per cent and 73.7 per cent respectively last season.
No player in the Premier League is winning such a high percentage of duels. It is only a 10-game sample, of course, but his current success rate is higher than in any of his previous campaigns too.
It represents a dramatic change from last season in particular, when Van Dijk was dribbled past 11 times – his highest-ever total.
So far this season, he is the only regularly-starting centre-back in the competition who has not yet been dribbled past once – a feat reminiscent of his sensational 2018/19 campaign.
There have been occasional lapses, namely the last-man foul on Aleksandar Isak which saw him sent off in the win over Newcastle in August and the misjudged pass from which Brighton scored their opening goal in the 2-2 draw at the Amex Stadium in October.
But the overall picture is one of a player who has regained his sharpness. It can be seen in possession as well as out of it. Van Dijk is completing a higher rate of passes over short and long distances. His possession losses have dropped by nearly 20 per cent.
He is meeting expectations again and that is no mean feat given the standards he has set and the context in which he is doing it. “Being a centre-back at a top club has never been harder,” wrote Jamie Carragher in his Daily Telegraph column in October.
“It has become the most demanding position on the pitch… You need the pace of an attacker and the technical ability of a midfielder alongside every other asset.”
Van Dijk is bringing all of that and has taken on even more responsibility in the form of Liverpool’s captaincy. Recent evidence suggests inheriting the armband from Jordan Henderson has been a help rather than a hindrance. He sees it the same way.
“There is a lot involved, perhaps even more at the club than with the national team,” he added last week. “But it doesn’t have a negative impact on my game. It is more of an incentive.”
He has already steered the squad through difficult moments, including the unprecedented kidnapping of Luis Diaz’s parents, while also providing guidance to Liverpool’s young players, including their emerging centre-back Jarell Quansah, who has described playing with Van Dijk as “24-7 learning”.
The feeling among his team-mates is that he has adjusted to the captaincy seamlessly. “Seeing him take it on so well has been really impressive,” said Joe Gomez in a recent interview with Sky Sports. “He will impose himself, speak to us and shout at us if he needs to.”
It is just another way in which he is helping and it is clear he is in a better place mentally as well as physically. Van Dijk compared his ACL injury to his “world collapsing” last season. There were tough times subsequently with both his club and his country.
But all that is behind him now and Liverpool are feeling the benefits.
Saturday’s trip to the Etihad Stadium will test their title credentials. Their issues in midfield demand caution. But they are there, only a point off the pace. And that is thanks in large part to Van Dijk.
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