It was bound to happen sooner or later.
After two imperious seasons taking Liverpool to 97- and 99-point hauls, Virgil van Dijk was untouchable. One Player of the Year accolade followed 12 months later by the Premier League trophy.
Van Dijk has, over the course of the last two seasons, firmly established himself as the leading defender in English football, and arguably its most influential player overall.
He was credited with almost single-handedly turning around Jurgen Klopp’s once notoriously leaky defence pretty much overnight.
Since Liverpool claimed their Premier League crown in June, with a record seven games still to play, critics have been quick to pick up on any signs of weakness from the champions. That, incredibly, includes Van Dijk.
Virgil van Dijk has come in for criticism just two games into the 2020-21 season
Van Dijk has been accused of being ‘arrogant’, ‘lazy’ and ‘nonchalant’ by pundits this month
They were certainly plenty of them during Project Restart, as Liverpool strolled through their final games of the campaign. There was a heavy defeat at Manchester City, dropped points at home to Burnley and a self-destructive loss to Arsenal, the kind of reverse that just doesn’t happen to Klopp’s Liverpool.
Van Dijk was particularly culpable on that night at the Emirates, producing a calamitous error by passing the ball straight to Alexandre Lacazette on the edge of the box, who made no mistake.
Van Dijk sinks to his knees after Leeds equalised against Liverpool on the opening day
And in Liverpool’s opening game as defending champions this season, Van Dijk was at it again, this time guilty of overplaying at the back.
As a long pass was played in behind Liverpool’s backline, the Dutchman extended one of his long legs to try and hook the ball towards Andy Robertson and keep possession.
Leeds striker Patrick Bamford read Van Dijk’s rather telegraphed intentions, intercepted the ball and clipped it over Alisson to give the newly-promoted side parity for the second time in the game.
Jamie Carragher immediately called him ‘arrogant’ on air, while Graeme Souness admitted in the Sky Sports studio that he had had a ‘stinker’. This week he has been accused of being ‘lazy’ and ‘nonchalant’ by Holland’s Euro 1988 winning Wim Kieft.
It was an uncharacteristic mistake from van Dijk, but his second high-profile one in the space of four games for Liverpool following the stray pass at the Emirates in July.
Van Dijk hooked the ball straight into the path of Patrick Bamford to equalise at Anfield
Van Dijk looks on ruefully as Bamford finds the back of the net for Leeds at Anfield
Though the mistake was uncharacteristic, it was hardly uncharacteristic for Van Dijk to try and pull off. He is not a no-nonsense defender from a bygone age.
He is elegant on the ball and takes calculated risks with his defending, conscious always of the possibility of putting the pressure back on the opposition. It’s the mindset that brought him plaudits for heading the ball to himself when put under pressure by a long ball at Brighton last season.
If it had gone wrong it would have brought a very different reaction, but, as so often with what Van Dijk does, it went exactly as he had planned.
When that ball landed at the feet of Bamford instead of Robertson on the opening day, it brought joy to rival fans. It was quickly pointed out that Van Dijk has now made more errors leading to goals than anyone any other outfield player in the Premier League since the 2018-19 season.
But that is still only three in 77 games, even if two came in quick succession. Seven other outfield players have also made three errors leading to goals. But Van Dijk has played 40 more minutes than the other two players to have also committed three errors leading to the opposition scoring – Danny Rose and David Luiz.
Van Dijk has made three errors leading to an opposition goal since the start of last season
Van Dijk passed the ball straight to Alexandre Lacazette to score at Arsenal last season
Jamie Carragher recently criticised van Dijk and is not the only one to notice his mistakes
Of the three errors he has made leading to opposition shots, all have been punished by goals. Wolves’ Willy Boly has made nine errors leading to opposition shots in the same period of time, but none have resulted in a goal.
In 3,600 minutes of football since the start of last season he has made three errors leading to an opposition shot – that’s one every 1,200 minutes, one every 13.33 games.
Those quick to seize upon any van Dijk error as proof of his waning powers will be sorely disappointed. His numbers remain fairly consistent from the start of last season to the 11 games played post-lockdown.
He is intercepting the ball, recovering it and passing it at almost the same levels as before. He is not winning the ball in the air as much, but the difference of 0.2 less per 90 minutes is negligible.
He is, though, clearing the ball nearly two times fewer per 90 than previously, which hints at those risks he took at Brighton and against Leeds as being permanent parts of his game.
Interestingly his number of tackles per 90 minutes is way down, at 0.09 instead of 0.76 previously. His game is all about anticipation and positioning, so that he does not have to rely on tackling. But that is still a stark difference, and it will be interesting to note if that disparity continues or not.
But the proof is in the pudding. Van Dijk remains the same player he was before. If he is becoming a little ‘arrogant’ in his approach, then it isn’t showing in his performances.
Van Dijk’s numbers show, though, that he remains near the top of his game currently
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