In June 2020, Liverpool’s wait for a Premier League title finally came to an end. After years of underachievement, they'd finally done it all - the English crown to go with the European and world championships won in the year previous.
None of this would have been possible without Virgil van Dijk.
Eyebrows were raised when the Reds shattered the world record transfer for a defender in January 2018, paying Southampton £75m to secure the Dutchman’s services. Yet he has repaid that fee with his impact at the club, not just in terms of his own performances, but through leadership and the enormous lift he has given to others around him.
World class players don’t just reach incredible heights, they improve their teammates.
To understand the scale of what Van Dijk has done for Liverpool it is important to first rewind a few years to the 2013/14 season, when the club had previously been on the cusp of greatness only to fail when it mattered most.
With talisman Luis Suarez leading the way with 31 Premier League goals, dragging Daniel Sturridge with him to 21 and other goals coming from all over the pitch from Steven Gerrard (13), Raheem Sterling (9) and even Martin Skrtel (7), Liverpool joined Manchester City as the first two clubs in the post-1992 era to score a century in a single league season.
What let them down horribly was their leaky defence. Conceding 50 goals in 38 games was only marginally better than 16th place Hull. Blowing the title can be precisely traced to a 2-0 loss to Chelsea and a 3-3 draw against Crystal Palace in the final three games. But had the ‘Crystanbul’ collapse not happened, a superior goal difference would have still made Manchester City champions.
By 2017/18, Jurgen Klopp’s new Liverpool had assembled most of the team that would go on to win the Champions League and Premier League. Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino were there, helping the Reds outscore everyone except a record-breaking Manchester City, but the team still fell short because they weren’t up to scratch defensively.
In January 2018, Liverpool’s recruitment department, having failed to land Van Dijk the previous summer and forced into an apology to Southampton, paid the asking price and got their man.
His impact was beyond even the most optimistic expectations and scoring the winner in a tight Merseyside derby FA Cup tie was the perfect way to endear himself to his new fans.
In 23 games before Van Dijk’s league debut, Liverpool were conceding an average of 1.2 goals per game. In the 17 that followed, it was close to half the goals against - 0.67.
Although average points per game marginally dropped as attention in April turned to the Champions League, Liverpool won four consecutive European games in which Van Dijk played – including home and away against runaway domestic champions City.
A spectacular Gareth Bale goal and two costly mistakes from goalkeeper Loris Karius were the differences in an otherwise tight final against back-to-back holders Real Madrid.
But the signing of goalkeeper Alisson Becker in the summer of 2018 plugged the final leak at the back which Van Dijk alone couldn’t – proving for a second time in the space of six months that the right player is worth paying a colossal amount for.
Van Dijk was an ever-present for 37 Premier League games in 2018/19, missing only 35 minutes of action, and Liverpool shaved 16 goals off their goals against column. It was the best defensive record in the league, fewer than half the goals Brendan Rodgers’ Reds had conceded in 2013/14, and the club would have been champions of England had Manchester City’s form not been even more astonishing. Liverpool’s 97-point tally set a huge new record for a runner-up.
In Europe, it was a different story. In Van Dijk’s first full season with the club in the Champions League he was immense and Liverpool went all the way, seeing off Paris Saint-Germain, Napoli, Porto, Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Tottenham en-route to lifting the trophy.
Van Dijk was very unfortunate not to win the 2019 Ballon d’Or, losing out to Lionel Messi.
Throughout the 2018/19 campaign and into the start of 2019/20, a particular stat was doing the rounds on social media weekly. No opponent had successfully dribbled past Van Dijk in a Premier League game since the 2017/18 campaign at the very start of his Liverpool career.
That streak eventually grew to 50 by the time it was ended in a meaningless manner in a comfortable win over Arsenal in August 2019. While the run went on, it had seen Van Dijk’s reputation soar to unbelievable levels. He was increasingly perceived as completely impassable and often won the psychological battle with his opponents before even stepping onto the pitch.
When he got onto the field, here was the all-round perfect centre-back, someone who combined excellent awareness and football intelligence with elite physical attributes and powers of recovery. Forwards simply couldn’t beat him in the air, on the ground, or anywhere else.
Liverpool romped to the Premier League title in 2019/20. The truly phenomenal numbers fell away towards the end, but the title race was long over in all but mathematics by February. Understandably taking their foot off the metaphorical pedal, the Reds conceded practically half their total goals against tally in the last 11 games, compared to only 17 in the first 27 games.
They were incredible at the top end of the pitch, able to grind out win after win, but a run of seven consecutive Premier League clean sheets in a busy December and January period really turned the screw in the title race and pulled control irreversibly in Liverpool’s favour.
A timeless saying from the world of American sports is that ‘offence wins games but defence wins championships’ and is especially apt for Liverpool. The biggest reason for that is Virgil van Dijk; unquestionably world class.