After blowing West Ham on opening weekend, Liverpool won in a different, and more satisfying way against Crystal Palace under the lights at Selhurst Park.
The Reds’ performance oozed control and composure virtually from start to finish. There was never any hint of panic as they chipped away in the first half until James Milner rolled home a penalty on the stroke of the interval, and even before Sadio Mané sealed the win at the death the three points seemed safe.
There were several excellent individual performances against the Hammers, but this was a more subtle, collective effort aimed at passing one of the Premier League’s trickiest away tests.
After a quiet debut, Alisson Becker was considerably busier between the sticks. When called upon, he was flawless, and his distribution from the Liverpool penalty area was quite staggering. He completed more than 91% of his passes which, somehow, was two per cent less than he managed against West Ham, indicating that this inch-perfect passing will become the norm.
In front of the Brazilian, Andrew Robertson turned in another very solid defensive performance and was a constant supporting presence for the attack at the other end. Time and again he made himself available in dangerous crossing positions and linked-up well with his left-sided team-mates.
Joe Gomez, meanwhile, was impressive once again and, aside perhaps from a couple of very minor errors, he looked comfortable and, crucially, much more mature than he did at points during an inconsistent 2017/18 campaign.
Georginio Wijnaldum and goalscorer Milner, whose spot-kick was perfect, turned in battling displays in the heart of the midfield, while Mohamed Salah was hugely influential, notching two assists and effectively forcing Palace to sacrifice a man.
Man of the match, though, goes to Virgil van Dijk.
The towering centre-back earned the lion’s share of the post-match praise after what really was a flawless performance.
So often when there was danger Van Dijk snuffed it out, whether by thumping the ball out and to safety (he cleared it eight times in total) or simply passing his way of his trouble.
Together with Alisson, he is absolutely essential in Liverpool’s efforts to effectively play out from the back. He finished the game with a passing accuracy of 92.4%, having completed 10 successful long balls.
Generally, the Dutchman’s best attribute is his assuredness but this time it was his aerial prowess which made the difference. His dominance in his battle with target man Christian Benteke was sensational. Given Palace’s predictable reliance on the big striker to bully the Reds’ defence into submission, it was crucial to his side’s victory.
Benteke was beaten relentlessly until he was mercifully hauled off on 70 minutes. His replacement, the 6’3″ Alexander Sorloth, could not ruffle opposition feathers in an anonymous cameo.
All in all, Van Dijk won nine aerial duels. The word authoritative really doesn’t do it justice.
When you always consider that he won every tackle he attempted, you can understand why pundits have been questioning whether there are any real weaknesses to Van Dijk’s game. Anyone who denies him a place among the very best defenders on the planet will find it increasingly difficult to make a solid case.
Liverpool’s game-management in this tight contest was much-improved, and it could be argued that much of that is down to Van Dijk. His calmness runs through a team which has in the past been almost paralysed by fear of an imminent defensive lapse; the players can stroke it around with confidence in the middle of the park rather than frantically pushing forward in full confidence that the back four will be able to repel the opposition’s late advances.
It seems unjust to attribute the strides made by the other members of the back four to Van Dijk’s presence, but Gomez and Dejan Lovren both look different players alongside him and are clearly aided by the stream of commands each game. Before his arrival, the Reds lacked defensive solidity and in some respects, they lacked leaders. Both of those problems appear to have gone away already.
In summation, Van Dijk is right up there with the most important figures in this Liverpool side. A prolonged lay-off for Salah or Roberto Firmino would be disastrous, but so too would an extended spell on the sidelines for the man driving the team’s defensive resurgence and providing the platform for an expression of attacking brilliance unencumbered by defensive frailty.