Record-breaker Van Dijk remains Liverpool's MVP
Liverpool’s 3-1 win over Arsenal may not look like a dismantling on paper, but the Reds were in another stratosphere to their top-four-chasing opponents.
Jurgen Klopp’s champions delivered a masterclass in patience and quality at Anfield, starving the Gunners of possession in the way they used to during Arsene Wenger’s pomp. The gulf in class was great and Liverpool outplayed Arsenal in every single department.
You could pick out almost every Reds player on the night and lavish them with praise, which is exactly what generally happened after the dust had settled.
Alisson was back to his best and made a vital save to thwart Alexandre Lacazette, while Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson excelled, along with a more confident-looking Joe Gomez.
Meanwhile, Fabinho was a colossal presence at the base of Liverpool’s midfield, working superbly in tandem with the ever-improving Naby Keita and ever-reliable Gini Wijnaldum.
Mo Salah was unplayable in the early exchanges before Sadio Mane took on that mantle after the interval, with the pair tearing Arsenal’s defenders to shreds for large periods. Roberto Firmino wasn’t at his best, but he still did plenty of selfless running, too.
The one man who arguably received less focus than most at the time was Virgil van Dijk, despite it being a record-breaking evening for Liverpool’s most expensive signing.
Why is that, I hear you say? Because we just expect unrivalled, world-class brilliance from him every single week.
Van Dijk was sensational against Arsenal, producing the kind of performance that used to be lauded to the rafters but is now treated like the norm.
This was anything but your average centre-back display, however, not least because the 29-year-old broke a record set only a few weeks ago by Thiago.
Liverpool’s new signing made an immediate impression in the win at Chelsea, completing 75 passes in one half – a Premier League record since passing statistics started being collated in the early 2000s – but if he thought he could bask in the glory of his passing prowess, Van Dijk had other ideas.
In what was an exhibition of technical expertise, Van Dijk completed 77 passes of his own in the first half, putting himself into the record books.
This was no meaningless statistic either. This wasn’t him endlessly passing the ball from side to side – there was constant risk-taking and unnerving accuracy on show.
The Dutchman fired a string of arrow-like long balls into the direction of the full-backs and wide forwards, hitting his desired targets consistently – 14 times in total – with that effortless style of his.
Arteta referenced VVD in his post match. Just look at that…a 1 man game plan wrecker. pic.twitter.com/Upbn5t0wux
— Dan Kennett (@DanKennett) September 28, 2020
Mikel Arteta did his best to adopt a high-pressing approach, but Van Dijk’s brilliance saw it bypassed time and time again and Arsenal were powerless to do anything about it.
Not only was he perfect in possession, but his defending was spot on throughout the evening, with three recoveries and clearances apiece to his name, as well as one interception.
When Van Dijk is like this, there isn’t a better centre-back in Liverpool’s history, and very few better in the history of football for that matter.
That may sound hyperbolic, but he really is that good.
The truth is that for all the world-class magic of so many Liverpool superstars, Van Dijk is the key to everything the Reds want to achieve, along with Klopp, of course.
From the moment he walked through the doors in January 2018, it felt like the team went up a gear, reaching the Champions League final within four months, winning the competition a year later, as well as getting 97 points in the league, before last season’s glorious title triumph.
Van Dijk’s level of availability is almost freakish, and in a defence littered with injury-prone centre-backs, always having him fit and firing has been absolutely priceless.
He is the glue that holds this entire team together, and while some are already declaring Liverpool the 2020/21 champions-in-waiting, a long-term injury to Van Dijk would change everything.
His fitness could define an entire English football season, summing up how influential he is.
You could lose any other individual and Liverpool would get by – they kept winning without Alisson and Fabinho for long periods last season, for example – but their cloak of invincibility could slip without their towering defender around.
It is so important not to take Van Dijk for granted, especially as he won’t be around forever. He has turned 29 years of age from nowhere, which is alarming.
We are witnessing a genuine legend at the peak of his powers, and the player who is most responsible for this incredible era taking place at Liverpool.
There may be times when it feels like Salah or Mane are the one true superstars at the club, or when Alisson and Alexander-Arnold are worth their weight in gold, but Van Dijk is far and away the main man, and will be for however long Liverpool dominate English football.