Not since the days of Eric Cantona has one signing made such an impact on a team.
The French maverick was the final component Sir Alex Ferguson needed to turn his Manchester United side of the 1990s into a title-winning machine. His arrival at Old Trafford is now retrospectively considered one of the most pivotal moments in the club’s modern history. Liverpool’s signing of Virgil van Dijk will likely be remembered in much the same way.
Van Dijk’s immediate impact at Anfield was astonishing. Before his arrival, Liverpool were renowned for being an exhilarating outfit in the attacking sense, but vulnerable in the defensive. The Dutchman changed that, turning the Reds into a complete team pretty much from the moment he walked through the door.
Last year was such a stellar one for the 28-year-old that he was the pick of many for the Ballon d’Or, ultimately finishing a close second to Lionel Messi. Van Dijk also capped an exceptional 2018/19 season with a clean sweep of England’s domestic individual awards and he has maintained that level over the 2019/20 season too.
The coronavirus crisis, which has postponed the Premier League season until further notice, has left us to connect the dots in many cases and one such trail leads this writer to conclude that Van Dijk deserves to be Player of the Year once again. If the 2019/20 campaign was drawn to an end right now, as has been mooted as a potential option, he would be the outstanding performer over the whole.
It’s been over a decade since the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award has been retained, with Cristiano Ronaldo collecting the honour in 2007 and 2008. Van Dijk, however, is the best player to have played in the Premier League since Ronaldo. Not since the Portuguese forward was at Old Trafford has a Premier League player performed at such a high level for so long.
Behind only Joe Gomez (89.7 per 90 minutes), Van Dijk has been Liverpool’s most prolific passer this season (84.5 per 90 minutes). He is also their joint third highest long ball passer (9.7 per 90 minutes) behind only Adrian and Trent Alexander-Arnold. Van Dijk is a central pillar of Jurgen Klopp’s strategy, with his ability to pick out a team-mate and recognise space from a distance key to facilitating Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah in particular.
The statistical case for Van Dijk to win the Premier League’s Player of the Year award for a second successive season continues. He averages the third most touches of the ball per 90 minutes (94.8) of the current Anfield crop and wins an average of 4.7 out of 6.2 aerial duels per 90 minutes.
Of Liverpool’s outfield players this season, Van Dijk has conceded the fewest fouls (0.3 per 90 minutes). This illustrates the nature of the Dutch centre back. He rarely finds himself in a position where a last-ditch tackle is required. His spatial awareness is second to none and can quell an emergency situation without even engaging an opponent. Van Dijk embodies the age of the non-tackling defender.
Van Dijk has yet to make a single error that led to a goal in the Premier League this season and has only made one error that led to an opposition chance. Only Georginio Wijnaldum (7.8 per 90 minutes) loses the ball less often than the Dutch defender does (9.6 per 90 minutes) among his Liverpool teammates.
Of course, it is important to note the competition before handing out awards, even those of the hypothetical kind. Jordan Henderson and Mane have both been put forward as candidates with the latter netting 14 times in the Premier League this season. But that puts Mane some way short of Jamie Vardy’s league-high tally of 19 goals, while Henderson’s candidacy cannot be illustrated through statistics either.
The Belgian creates one big chance per 90 minutes, more than anyone else, and has averaged more crosses (10.2) per 90 minutes than anyone else besides Alexander-Arnold (10.9).
Not even De Bruyne’s influence on Manchester City measures up to Van Dijk’s on Liverpool, though. His signing might have been seen as the final piece of the puzzle, but the Dutchman is closer to being the foundation upon which Klopp has built the greatest team Anfield has seen in a generation. To overlook Van Dijk’s contribution this season would be illogical.