Why an aerially dominant centre-back is so important for Liverpool

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Sheffield United caused Liverpool a lot of problems on Saturday night. As revealed on the Anfield Index Under Pressure podcast, Chris Wilder’s men had 29 touches in the penalty area, the fourth most by any team against the Reds since the start of the 2016/17 campaign. The visitors also managed 13 shots, just four fewer than the hosts. They got at the champions and it’s something we can expect to see from opposition teams moving forward. 

Liverpool are by no means a one-man team but Virgil van Dijk does give them an aura. There’s a feeling that strikers are already beaten before they step onto the pitch. Few can bully him and it’s rare to see him lose a foot race. He’s the perfect centre-back; he’s bigger, better and stronger than most. It’s as simple as that. 

Without him, the fear factor isn’t there. Against the Blades, it felt like Ollie McBurnie was winning the majority of aerial duels. Rhian Brewster even beat Joe Gomez in the air at one point. At the end of the first half, Gomez had won just 29% of his aerial battles. 

Injuries have also forced the Reds into using Fabinho at centre-back. He’s performed well there but it means Liverpool lose his aerial presence in midfield. Last season, the Brazilian won 65% of his aerial duels. Etienne Capoue and Paul Pogba were the only midfielders in the Premier League with a higher aerial duel success rate. 

Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum are both brilliant at what they do, but winning aerial duels isn’t something they do. The pair have a combined aerial duel success rate of 40%. 

To put it bluntly; Gomez and Fabinho aren’t as good as Van Dijk in the air while Henderson and Wijnaldum aren’t as good as Fabinho in the air. Jurgen Klopp’s side are generally weaker at dealing with long balls right now and this is why Sheffield United had a lot of joy. They gambled but only did so because they backed McBurnie to bully the centre-back pairing. 

In the still above, you see the away side have five bodies in the final third. Brewster and McBurnie are supported by George Baldock, Sander Berge and John Lundstrum. The Sheffield United No.9 beats Gomez in the air and the visitors immediately look to support the former Liverpool striker. This move eventually leads to Ben Osborn connecting with a volley inside the box and Alisson is forced into a save. 

But all it took was one long goal kick and Wilder’s side had good, sustained possession in the Liverpool half. It’s unlikely that happens with Van Dijk playing. 

There’s another example of this above. Aaron Ramsdale went long but this time a Liverpool head gets there first. However, Sheffield United are in a position to press and they do just that. Berge towers over Wijnaldum to win the second ball and, all of a sudden, the hosts are penned in their own half with the Blades committing seven players to this attack. Do they do that if Van Dijk was starting? Are they brave enough to do that against a full-strength Liverpool side? It’s very doubtful. 

This is why, whoever Liverpool do sign to help the centre-back situation, they need to be good in the air. 

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