It’s not just Liverpool fans who are thrilled to welcome back the Reds’ talisman, Virgil van Dijk, after 285 days out of the game.
The Anfield staff are also purring over the man James Milner described as the Rolls Royce of defenders.
But in pre-season it has been Van Dijk’s attacking threat that has caught the eye of the coaches – and it was on show as he returned to match action in the 4-3 friendly defeat by Hertha Berlin last Thursday.
While the Dutchman brings stability to Liverpool’s back line, it’s his ability to propel his team forwards that can power Liverpool back into contention for the Premier League title this season.
Virgil van Dijk returned to action against Hertha Berlin and played a part in the Reds’ third goal
VIRGIL VAN DIJK IS VITAL TO LIVERPOOL’S COUNTER ATTACKS
A comparison of Virgil van Dijk with the best centre backs in Europe’s five biggest leagues reveals he is one of finest attacking defenders on the continent. In 2019-20 Van Dijk was in the:
Top one percent of centre backs for:
Long passes completed
Top three percent for:
Shots on target
Progressive passing distance
Top 10 percent for:
Passes into final third
Goal creating actions
And it is significant that assistant manager Pepijn Lijnders has picked out the offensive side of the defender’s game in pre-season.
Lijnders has marvelled at the quality of Van Dijk’s passing during the team’s retreat in Salzburg, as they prepared for last week’s test against Hertha, which saw the 30-year-old take the field in the 69th minute.
‘Just now, I was walking off the pitch after this morning’s session thinking the quality and speed of passes were outstanding,’ Lijnders told the club website ahead of the match.
‘Virgil found Milner one time with a “surprise” pass through the centre in behind… we stopped the exercise there! Always ending on a high! Haha, I love it!’
‘Quality and speed’ were too often missing last season in Van Dijk’s absence. Attacks became predictable, with passing ponderous through midfield and Sadio Mane, in particular, found himself too often shackled by deep-set defences when the ball finally arrived
Compare that to the training ground pass that played in Milner and thrilled Lijnders: Trademark Van Dijk.
It was the Dutchman’s extraordinary ability to hit pinpoint long range passes that put Liverpool on the front foot en-route to the title in 2019-20, helping to deliver 85 goals in the Premier League, compared to just 68 last time around.
It is no coincidence that the Rolls Royce was under repair with a serious knee injury for all but five Premier League matches last term, after he was cruelly cut down by a reckless challenge from Everton and England goalkeeper, Jordan Pickford, on October 17, 2020.
In the title-winning season, Van Dijk’s was in the top one percent of centre-backs across Europe for long passes completed, managing almost 16 per game at a completion rate of 79.2 per cent, and through balls.
He was also in an elite group for switch-passes. But Van Dijk does not just spray the football from side to side. He plays with purpose
A popular challenge to defenders and midfield players laid down by coaches in the modern game is, ‘can you play forward?’ With Van Dijk the answer is often emphatically, ‘yes’.
It is no surprise he is in the top 10 per cent of European defenders for forward passes towards the opponent’s goal and passes into the final third of the pitch.
The 30-year-old Dutchman (centre) featured for 21 minutes and played a part at both ends
Assistant coach Pepijn Lijnders (left) and Jurgen Klopp have been impressed with Van Dijk
What those statistics look like on the field are laser-like balls in behind opposition full-backs, with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson running free, high and wide.
Or, Mo Salah and Mane collecting possession one-on-one with defenders on the edge of the opponent’s penalty area, while opposition midfield players are still in the early stages of their recovery runs.
The quality and speed of the passes, which is what excites Lijnders, means that Liverpool can hurt teams whenever their opponents dare to emerge from a low block.
Van Dijk’s prowess for hitting long passes can launch Liverpool’s attacks in an instant. Typically he searches for Trent Alexander-Arnold or Andy Robertson in wide positions, who look to cross early, taking the Reds into the opponent’s penalty area in two passes, bypassing defensive midfield players.
The result of these accurate bombs is chaos in their opponent’s last line as defenders and midfielders desperately scramble to reorganise.
The outcome is more chances are created. Among centre backs, Van Dijk was also in the top 10 per cent of players for goal-creating actions in 2019-20. And this was no flash in the pan, either. He hit similar numbers for these metrics in 2018-19.
Even on his return, Van Dijk was involved in Liverpool’s third goal when he won an unlikely header in the Hertha box, forcing an error from the German goalkeeper Alexander Schwolow, before Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain hit home.
In short, he does a lot of damage and creates the circumstances in which others can flourish. And of course, as Liverpool headed towards the title a year ago, he chipped in with an assist and five goals of his own.
Other favourite targets for Van Dijk are Mo Salah and Sadio Mane in high, wide positions. In this example against Arsenal, Van Dijk evades the press with a super-accurate pass to Salah, who has isolated the defender one-on-one. From here Liverpool can break the Gunners’ defensive line for a chance in behind.
Perhaps Mane has the most to gain from Van Dijk’s return. He suffered from his team mate’s long absence last season, netting 11 times in the top flight, compared 18 the year before when in the regular company of the Dutch master.
The ever-dependable Salah still managed 22 Premier League goals last season, up from 18 the year before, but interestingly only half the number of assists, which given the slowed build up allowing defences to regain shape and composure is unsurprising.
It is telling that an assessment of Van Dijk’s game by the analysts, Ai Abacus, reveals he is rated higher for pass completion, progressive passes, build up play and passing range than he is for his tackling and defending in one-vs-one situations.
That snapshot serves to underline Van Dijk’s importance to Liverpool’s offensive threat.
Klopp was all smiles during the pre-season friendly in Austria as his centre backs returned
Analysts Ai Abacus have rated Van Dijk’s qualities and he is strong defensively and offensively
Of course, Van Dijk is a superb defender, too. The statistics also reveal he is almost peerless in his aerial ability, counter pressing and aggression and he’s not bad in a tackle either.
Jurgen Klopp has insisted he will be cautious with the Rolls, particularly during the early part of the season. The defender’s tumble in the lead up to Berlin’s fourth goal showed he has some work to do after such a long layoff, but the boss likes what he is seeing.
‘He looks really good in training,’ Klopp said on the club website. ‘If you see the games now as part of their rehab training, that makes sense.’
Once fully fit, Van Dijk could be the difference for Liverpool this season, at both ends of the pitch, and he is looking forward to it.
‘285 days ago, I started on a journey back towards playing,’ Van Dijk said after the game against Berlin. ‘It’s hard to express how I am feeling, but it’s important to me that I say I feel blessed to have had the support of so many incredible people.
‘The work doesn’t stop now. It’s only just starting. We keep going!’