Why Virgil van Dijk Is Liverpool's Most Important Player
Such is the level of quality within Liverpool’s newly-built squad, there are various players that could lay claim to being the Reds’ most important individual heading into 2018/19.
Mo Salah is the obvious name that immediately springs to mind, considering the Egyptian’s 44 goals last season catapulted him to superstar status.
Without his devastating impact in the final third, Liverpool would suddenly cut a far less potent force.
The subtle magic of Roberto Firmino also makes him one of the first names on the team-sheet, especially because his style of play is so integral to making his side tick.
Sadio Mane was arguably the Reds’ best and most indispensable player this time last year, prior to Salah letting loose and Firmino finding another gear.
Some may still feel Liverpool’s new No.10 can be the star man again, having found top form after a brief dip before Christmas, at least by his high standards.
The arrival of Naby Keita has caused a mild form of hysteria on Merseyside and there is no reason why the 23-year-old cannot light up the Premier League from minute one and become the man the Reds turn to most for inspiration.
Then there’s Alisson, who now has the impressive record of being the most expensive goalkeeper in the history of the game.
The giant Brazilian will fill a void between the sticks that has been gaping since Pepe Reina decided to stop being brilliant, adding a whole new level of confidence to the team.
Fabinho hasn’t even earned a mention yet.
Like his compatriot Alisson, the former Monaco favourite could slot into defensive midfield and boss things in that area like no Liverpool player has since Javier Mascherano.
That’s six top players right there who feel enormously important to the cause – helping Liverpool finally win the Premier League title – but the most key figure still hasn’t even been mentioned.
That man is Virgil van Dijk – a colossal footballer who has already transformed a defence capable of horrendous meltdowns prior to his arrival.
The Dutchman may not be as gifted or as good as some of those mentioned above, but when you look at his ability to influence those around him, and Liverpool’s other options at centre-back, you realise his value.
As soon as Van Dijk strutted into Melwood back in January as the world’s most expensive defender, the Reds’ fortunes changed for the better.
Loris Karius and Dejan Lovren improved significantly because of him and emerging full-backs Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold also benefited from having a genuinely world-class centre-back marshalling the troops.
Jordan Henderson’s impact in front of the back-four also became more noticeable and Liverpool’s march to the Champions League final was largely due to Van Dijk’s leadership and consistency.
At home to Man City in the quarter-final first leg, in particular, he was immaculate, and without him the eventual 3-0 scoreline would like never have occurred.
In the return fixture at the Etihad, he stood tall when Jurgen Klopp’s men were wobbling and the same applied away to Roma during testing spells at Stadio Olimpico.
Van Dijk may not be invincible, with the odd minor mistake thrown in now and again, but the thought of losing him for an extended period of time is a terrifying one for Liverpool fans.
For all the goals of Salah, the genius of Firmino, the box-to-box magic of Keita and understated tactical awareness of Fabinho, Liverpool could get by without one of them for a while.
Alisson getting a long-term injury would be similarly fatal to Van Dijk, in fairness, but the towering defender still has the edge in terms of influence.
We don’t know exactly how good Alisson is going to be for Liverpool yet for starters, despite a fantastic season for Roma last time around.
There is an absolute chasm in class between Van Dijk and his fellow central defenders – he can lead the Reds to the title, the others can cost them it.
It’s the equivalent of comparing The Godfather and Mickey Blue Eyes as gangster movies.
Lovren grew significantly last season but he will only ever good enough if he has one of the world’s best alongside him helping him through games.
Exactly the same applies to the increasingly injury-prone and frustrating Joel Matip, who started so impressively at Anfield but has steadily got worse.
Ragnar Klavan is a backup option and cannot be relied upon for weeks on end and Joe Gomez is still effectively a fetus in terms of being a centre-back at the very top level.
It may be that the 21-year-old goes up a significant gear and becomes Van Dijk’s partner moving forward, but he would look lost without his so-called “big brother” by his side.
This season is a genuine opportunity for Liverpool to win the league – when you see neutrals predicting them to win it, rather than just Reds supporters, you realise they are a serious team.
Klopp has enjoyed an exceptional summer in the transfer market, strengthening areas that looked lacking, but an injury to Van Dijk has the potential to derail the entire campaign.
There is no other natural leader in the back-line and not one of the other centre-backs are even remotely close to his levels of talent and discipline.
You can’t help but feel Liverpool are one short in that department and it would be galling if not bringing in new one extra new face came back to haunt them.
Injuries invariably affect any season, and while being without Salah, Firmino, Keita and Alisson, in particular, would hurt, you get the feeling Liverpool wouldn’t suffer to a fatal extent.
A Van Dijk-less Reds would be an entirely different proposition, however.
He is the man Klopp needs to stay fit more than anyone, having shown in the space of just six months just how vital he is to Liverpool’s future success.
Van Dijk isn’t the Reds’ best player, but nobody makes a greater difference and there is no replacement fit to lace his boots.