When does a player become too good that people start to underrate their performances?
In Virgil van Dijk’s case, it was almost immediately after he moved to Liverpool. Though he went on to claim the PFA Player of the Year in his first full season at Anfield, many put that down to the hype surrounding him. The fact he was the world’s most expensive defender for a period of time meant all eyes were on him and, to the annoyance of those doubting the centre-back, the former Southampton man was near flawless.
But when Player of the Year talk started back up again for this season, the Liverpool No.4 wasn’t really part of the conversation. Jordan Henderson climbed to the top of the list, pushing Sadio Mane down the pecking order and it was believed that Kevin de Bruyne was the only player who could’ve prevented a Liverpool player from claiming a third consecutive POTY award.
Even fans of the Merseysiders have kind of overlooked their defensive colossus this season. When you’re consistently putting in reliable performances, it’s easy for people to take it for granted. This is what happened with Van Dijk. While Liverpool didn’t start to shut up shop and keep clean sheets until Alisson and Joe Gomez returned to the starting XI, the Reds dropped just two points in the 16 matches prior to the defensive triumvirate was reunited.
Van Dijk was the one constant. Though he didn’t single-handedly keep Liverpool in the title race, his assured performances in multiple matches ensured the Reds held firm in some difficult matches. And he was taken for granted.
Statistically, the 28-year-old has been even better this year. Just without the same sort of praise that went his way last season.
For example, he’s winning more duels and losing fewer, both on the ground and in the air. He’s playing more passes on a per 90 basis and completing a higher percentage, at least in the Premier League.
But away from the individual stats, Liverpool won all of the matches with Van Dijk playing alongside one of Dejan Lovren or Joel Matip and ahead of Adrian. He shouldered that burden. As fans, we’ve seen how difficult it is for Lovren to maintain concentration for 90-minute matches. We’ve witnessed how erratic Adrian can be between the sticks. But, remarkably, they kept brain farts to a minimum with Van Dijk leading them.
Granted, the Dutchman wasn’t at his best against Watford. But, ultimately, he’s being criticised for not being perfect. People claim he’s on his heels and slow to react but, in reality, very few other defenders would be scrutinised in such detail. Rival fans have since micro-analysed his performance against Atletico Madrid.
The clip doing the rounds on social media was when Atleti scored their equaliser. Alvaro Morata carried the ball forward and at first glance Van Dijk is standoffish. The former Chelsea man managed to play the ball inside to Marcos Llorente, the ex-Real Madrid midfielder then worked it back onto his right foot and he bends an effort past Adrian.
For some reason, people expect Van Dijk to dive into a tackle with Morata and quell the danger. But the Liverpool No.4 isn’t the sort to commit unless it is completely necessary. In this instance, there’s no need. The Reds have bodies back. The mistake, if you can call it that, is Gomez allowing Llorente back onto his right foot. Adrian should do better too but this goal is one scored once every 100 times. In the 99 other realities, this goal doesn’t happen and Van Dijk, doing what he does all the time, isn’t wrongly blamed for it.
But the fact people have jumped on this as a mistake shows how peerless Van Dijk has actually been. It highlights how consistently brilliant he has been and why he should’ve been favourite to land a second Player of the Year award.