Such has been the almost unblemished ascent Liverpool have enjoyed to what increasingly looks like an inevitable league title, a lot of the suspense has been removed from the domestic season for the Reds’ faithful.
With collective honours a near formality, many fans have instead debated who among the reigning European Champions’ squad will win the biggest individual awards come the season’s end.
Cases have been made for Sadio Mane and Jordan Henderson to win the player of the year gong — and those suggestions aren’t without merit, with both players enjoying excellent individual campaigns — but, for sheer consistency alone, Virgil van Dijk has been the Reds’ best player in not only this season, but also the one preceding it (which was recognised when he claimed last season’s PFA player of the year award).
Take a glance at social media after any Liverpool win and you will see praise apportioned to many players, but the towering Dutchman’s name is often conspicuous in its absence.
This isn’t because the former Southampton defensive linchpin has played poorly — you could count the number of game’s he’s played in a red shirt where he was anything less than imperious on one hand — it’s because he has played with such consistency since his £75M switch to Anfield in January 2018 that it would take a performance of unbelievable proportions for people to take notice.
Van Dijk’s form is so stable that there is never a trough to make you appreciate the peak; there is just a consistent level of performance, one that is so taken for granted by Liverpool fans that it hardly warrants mention.
Lightning quick — deceptively so for a man of his towering height — brilliant in the air, equally gifted on the ball and an educated reader of the game, the number 4 is the full centre half package.
Prior to the 28 year old arriving at the club, the reference points for quality Liverpool centre halves in the not so distant past were Jamie Carragher, Sami Hyypia and Daniel Agger. Van Dijk is an amalgam of the trio’s best attributes — boasting Carragher’s leadership, Hyypia’s aerial dominance and Agger’s technical prowess, all while being faster than all three — like a footballer crafted in a lab from their respective DNA samples.
But his greatest ability, perhaps, is to influence those around him. Since the Netherlands captain arrived at the club, his three partners — Joe Gomez, Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren — in the heart of Liverpool’s rearguard have enjoyed their best runs of form in a red shirt.
At the beginning of the 2018/2019 season, Gomez was entrusted with the right sided centre half berth alongside Van Dijk and they formed a pairing so formidable that by the time the young Englishman picked up a serious injury away to Burnley in matchday 15, the Reds had only conceded six league goals.
Gomez’ place in the side for the rest of the season was taken by either Lovren or Matip.
A divisive player among Liverpool fans, the Croat curbed much of the slapdash and erratic defensive performances that marred his early years with the Reds and produced arguably the most consistent run of form — relative to his own standards — in his career.
Matip, meanwhile, re-established himself back in the team near the turn of 2019 and excelled between then and the end of the season; with the Cameroonian playing a major role in the Merseysider’s claiming their sixth European Cup and gathering 97 points in the Premier League, a record haul for a team finishing as runners up.
While Gomez, Matip and Lovren all deserve credit for the improvements they showed last season, the common thread is that they all showed their best form while playing in a defence marshalled, talked through and guided by the grand conductor, Van Dijk.
And with the Reds looking on course for their first Premier League — a would be triumph built on defence, with only 15 goals conceded in 26 games — any individual award should go to their defensive rock, Van Dijk.