The World Class Upgrade
Under the Roy Evans regime, Neil Ruddock, John Scales, Phil Babb & Mark Wright were the options in defence. They were the central defenders in the mid nineties that saw a period of great attacking football from the reds. The likes of Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman were part of an exciting line up that fell short of major honours, often let down by the sides defensive deficiencies. Robbie Fowler certainly underachieved (in terms of silverware) in his career, despite his enormous talent and impact. Steve McManaman was the gifted instigator that headed to Real Madrid, where the prolific winners allowed the winger a true taste of glory. The defenders most certainly had varying qualities, and Mark Wright at his best was a tremendous defensive leader. The overall issue was errors and unreliable form, which could not match the teams attacking capabilities over the campaigns.
When Gerard Houllier took over, the magnificent Sami Hyypiä led the defensive rear guard in a period which saw substantial silverware won, and the defensive unit was often performing at elite levels. Stéphane Henchoz was a perfect foil for his captain (Sami), and the counter attacking system suited the defenders skill set ideally. Sami Hyypiä was a sensational defender, and the red’s best since Alan Hansen retired.
Later we would see likes of Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger emerge into central defence, with Agger’s ability making him one of the most underrated centre halves the league has seen. His effortless reading of the game, confident manner and wonderful left foot were hampered only by a series of injuries. If not for these injuries, Agger would have surely been held in a much higher regard outside of Anfield. Carragher was an all out, last ditch defender that excelled in deep block scenarios. His ability was never at the level to match his England counterparts (or indeed Agger), but his ability to defend in crisis situations was a great sight at times. This organised defensive period merged into the Rafa Benitez era, and under both defensive coaches, the team was an emphatically successful cup side.
The period after Rafa (and towards the end of his reign) saw a melee of under qualified, overhyped and lesser talented defenders take to the Anfield pitch. Under the stewardship of Roy Hodgson, Kenny Dalglish and Brendan Rodgers, there was always limited defensive abilities on show, especially with Carragher and Agger reaching the end of their careers. Martin Škrtel was a head and kick defender that required constant instruction, and Mamadou Sakho was a good defender, but often frustrated. Dejan Lovren was a disaster waiting to happen, and then Jürgen Klopp arrived.
Having had a formidable defensive pair in Mats Hummels and Neven Subotić at Borrussia Dortmund, Klopp’s initial group of defenders (at Liverpool) was rather underwhelming. His first summer saw him recruit Joël Matip, in a deal that has seen his abilities flourish whenever fit to play. His next significant movement in the central defensive line, was to integrate the ultra talented and gifted defender, Joe Gomez. The next step in his backline evolvement was the most important, transformative and expensive in his time as Liverpool manager, and is perhaps the most vital piece in the Klopp reign.
Virgil Van Dijk was worth the wait, the expense, and the negativity surrounding the huge fee. He was the player that was able to solidify an entire team, organise and improve everyone around him and quickly became the worlds greatest defender. Before Virgil signed, Liverpool had never before owned the worlds best defender, which he certainly has been. The questions surrounding the fee did not linger for long, leaving the only opposition’s hope that a post injury Virgil had dropped in his level of play. The wait for his signing was a tense one, and the even longer wait to see him return from long term injury, excruciating.
There really is no more substantial upgrade through the Liverpool side (under Klopp), than that which has occurred at centre back. The levels at which the current four can operate is probably the best in the league, and they are able to shut opponents out for extended periods throughout a season, especially with Virgil present. The addition of Ibrahima Konate completed a tremendous back four group, with Nat Phillips offering important qualities against certain teams, as the 5th choice defender.
The fact remains though, that Virgil Van Dijk is the commanding presence that is relied upon so heavily. Without this colossus defender there is often a worry and apprehension in the reds play, such is his stature. To take this man out of the side often sees the level of those around him drop, and this signifies how important he is to this side.
The new league season has begun with a renewed stability, with team leadership and organising fully part of Virgil’s role. To imagine him out of the side is enough to cause alarm, but short of domestic cup games, there’s a growing feeling that he should be a main stay in the side. With his presence, the team is allowed to camp in the opposition half, with the dreaded high line incorporated. The mere sight of Van Dijk stood on the half way line (or gently keeping pace with whomever has the ball), brings calm to both the team and the support. Joel Matip is playing a vital role (and I will be exploring his importance next week), but make no mistake, this team can achieve anything with Van Dijk controlling defensive matters.
The early game plan was a slow build when Klopp arrived. Players would fall consistently under the gegenpressing regime, but there was a clear identity building. The structure was becoming recognisable and the patterns of play explosive. Liverpool became a team of entertainers (much like the Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman era), but Klopp knew that solidity was still needed. The period between Virgil Van Dijk, Allison Becker and Fabinho arriving was what changed so much, in perhaps the most significant signing period the club has ever seen. The jump from entertainers to winners was immediate and the balance was only lost when the defensive crisis came about last season.
Liverpool will continue to challenge, even though their recruitment has stuttered somewhat. The goals and creativity are always present, but the system relies heavily on Liverpool ability to close teams out, and in this, Virgil has become the most important Liverpool player of the current set up. Liverpool have a chance of League and Champions League success this year, though only if the giant Dutchman remains part the team, and and stays injury free.