You could argue that no single player has improved the fortunes of a team more than Virgil van Dijk has since his arrival at Liverpool in January 2018. The towering Dutch centre-half has solidified a defence that before he came onto the scene was notoriously leaky, the likes of Dejan Lovren and Ragnar Klavan doing their best impression of the Chuckle Brothers at the heart of defence.
Now, Liverpool have a back four as formidable as any in Europe, and van Dijk is its heartbeat, its focal point. The Reds boasted the best defence in the Premier League last season, and van Dijk was a huge part of that. Liverpool’s Champions League triumph also owed a lot to the Dutchman, who subsequently won the UEFA Player of the Year and UEFA Defender of the Year awards. Due to van Dijk’s imposing presence at the back, Liverpool are among the favourites in odds to win Champions League once again this season.
But what is it that makes van Dijk such an accomplished defender? Arguably the most important factor is the Dutchman’s unflinching composure at all times. Never flustered, van Dijk oozes calm and this has had a positive effect on his teammates, and is perhaps one reason why the likes of Joe Gomez and Joël Matip have flourished when playing alongside him.
Van Dijk seems to glide across the pitch rather than run. He never appears to break out of second gear and yet he is never outpaced, his long strides like that of a prize racehorse. In an age of tricky wingers and lightning-quick attackers, van Dijk is always perfectly placed to react to the unpredictable – never out of position, always wise to the slightest feint or shimmy.
The Dutchman’s aerial presence is another reason for why he is so revered. His towering stature means forwards are instantly at a disadvantage in aerial duels, and this commandment of the high ball often stunts a lot of lesser teams’ means of hurting Liverpool.
Van Dijk is the ultimate modern defender – graceful and elegant on the ball, able to pick a long pass, but also ruthlessly physical and hard-hitting when needed. The reason he is hailed as the best defender in the world is that he has no weaknesses, he simply excels in every aspect of defending.
His leadership qualities are often overlooked in comparison to his technical abilities, but van Dijk has become a key leader in the Liverpool dressing room since his arrival. Players who can have such an immediate effect on morale and team spirit are hard to come by, and the importance of this aspect of van Dijk’s impact can’t be understated.
Of course, Liverpool’s improved defensive capabilities do not lie solely with van Dijk. Goalkeeper Alisson has solidified a position that had caused Liverpool many problems since the departure of Pepe Reina, while full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson have provided speed and strength in both an attacking and defensive sense. However, van Dijk is the cornerstone of Liverpool’s defence, with all the other parts moving around him, much like the way in which the planets orbit the sun.
The reason he is considered as the world’s best defender is because the impact he has had is tangible in terms of results and trophies. Liverpool won the Champions League with van Dijk as their defensive rock, and enjoyed the best Premier League campaign in the club’s history, which any other season would have delivered that elusive title win. As long as van Dijk maintains this form, there will undoubtedly be more trophies coming Liverpool’s way, and those triumphs create the kind of memories that solidify a player’s status as a club legend. Virgil van Dijk is well on his way to achieving that.