Signing for a world record £75million in January, eyebrows were certainly raised about Liverpool’s decision to splash the cash on Virgil Van Dijk. Yet, the Dutchman has already proved a worthy investment, posing a towering figure at the heart of the defence. Barking orders to his teammates while showing sublime distribution, he’s helped address the frailties in Klopp’s side as they hunt for a second-place finish.
Defences are built on much more than one individual, though. Liverpool have had a string of strong partnerships through the years; Hansen and Lawrenson, Carragher and Hyypia, Skrtel and Agger. Thus, for all the solidity Van Dijk’s arrival has brought, the need for a strong partner is a must, posing the question, who in the current crop of players could fulfil such a role?
Joel Matip was very much the favoured choice to begin with, able to stride out of the back confidently and offer a strong aerial threat at both ends of the pitch. Yet, months on and there’s increasing ambiguity over his defensive quality. Indecisive in possession, the Cameroonian looks far less assured than he used to, resulting in high profile errors against Newcastle, Leicester and West Brom, the latter of which saw Liverpool eliminated from the FA Cup.
This season Matip has averaged 0.05 defensive errors per ninety minutes, with 0.05 errors leading to goals per ninety minutes. Conceding 27 goals in the Premier League alongside either Klavan or Lovren, he’s featured in two of Liverpool’s heaviest defeats this season – 5-0 against Manchester City and 4-1 against Spurs. Clearly, the buck doesn’t stop with Matip for such defeats, but it presents a sure-fire indication of the persisting frailties among the back four. Thus, the perception that Matip is, or rather was, one of Klopp’s best defenders that would mount a serious partnership alongside Van Dijk no longer seems to ring true.
Van Dijk started three games alongside Matip prior to Klopp testing Lovren, with the duo establishing an unexpected partnership in recent weeks. The 2-2 draw against Tottenham provided a successful beta test. Albeit conceding two goals, Liverpool looked far more assured at the back, with Van Dijk the authoritative figure and Lovren able to keep his game simple as in his Southampton days. Alongside Jose Fonte, Lovren developed a robust partnership, utilising his power and strength while Fonte provided the vocal, aerially dominant figure. Unable to overthink in possession, the Croatian benefited hugely from Van Dijk’s presence as Harry Kane was restricted to minimal chances.
Then came Porto in the Champions League; another ninety minutes with plenty of positives for the pair. Van Dijk was dominant in his aerial duels while Lovren completed five tackles and five interceptions alongside ten clearances. The game also showed a new, more confident side to Lovren’s game. Able to come out of the defence with the ball, the former-Saints defender threaded balls into the midfield to keep Liverpool pressing on.
Lovren has performed far better alongside Van Dijk, providing him with an unexpected new dawn to establish himself at the heart of Liverpool’s defence.
While inconsistencies still plague his game, the Dutchman’s arrival has seen Lovren return to the player he was at Southampton and he’s leading the pack as Van Dijk’s companion, for now at least.