Virgil van Dijk continued his strong start to the season with a stoppage time penalty against Greece to secure the Netherlands’ place at Euro 2024.
Criticism of the Reds captain and his performances this season has often been hyperbolic, with fans and pundits overanalysing the Dutchman’s every action in hope of finding flaws.
After Pickford’s horror tackle, Van Dijk returned to his throne in 2021/2022 as the world’s best centre-back, but with minor mistakes now occasionally creeping into his game, rival fanbases are clamouring to crown their own defender in Van Dijk’s place.
The Dutchman’s average 2022/2023 season has not helped his cause, but again, criticism of his performances was wildly exaggerated.
— OnsOranje (@OnsOranje) October 17, 2023
This season, while Van Dijk has not quite been at his absolute best, there have been few centre-backs in the Premier League close to his level, with Tottenham’s Micky van de Ven the standout so far.
Still, Van Dijk’s errors this season have not been because of fundamental flaws within the Dutchman’s style of play, and there is every chance that the Reds captain can iron out any issues over the course of the season. When in-form, post ACL-injury Van Dijk is still the best defender in the world.
At his absolute peak, Van Dijk separated himself from his peers with his ability to not only dominate huge amounts of space, but also his ability to dominate all types of forwards in all areas of the pitch.
Whether it be tall and physical strikers like Michail Antonio, or tricky fast forwards like Kylian Mbappé and Heung-min Son, Virgil dealt with every situation calmly, and rather than diving into challenges, he would slow the attacker down and allow Liverpool’s defence to recover their positions.
After what many consider to be a poor outing last season, the Liverpool captain has started this season strongly. For example, Van Dijk has competed in 4.8 duels per game, winning 83% of his duels overall. The Dutchman boasts a 70% success rate in his ground duels, and wins an astonishing 88% of his aerial duels (Sofascore). The captain is displaying an increased level of aggression compared to last season, and far more proactive when defending.
Interestingly, the captain’s duelling percentages surpass even seasons that are considered his peak, with Van Dijk having won 76% of his duels in 2018/2019, and 75% of his duels in 2019/2020 (Sofascore).
While Van Dijk’s current season does not rank as highly in terms of volume when compared to his 2018-2020 peak, he is surpassing both the volume and percentage metrics of his 2021/2022 season, where his form helped Liverpool come close to an unprecedented quadruple (4.3 duels per 90, with 74% success rate).
Virgil van Dijk’s Duel Win Percentages
|Season||Duel Win % (Per 90)||Aerial Duel Win % (Per 90)||Ground Duel Win % (Per 90)|
|18/19||76% (6.4)||74% (4.8)||81% (1.7)|
|19/20||75% (6.3)||76% (5.0)||70% (1.3)|
|21/22||74% (4.3)||77% (3.4)||61% (0.9)|
|22/23||83% (4.8)||88% (3.7)||70% (1.2)|
*according to Sofascore
Rival centre-backs like Cristian Romero (71%), Sven Botman (69%), Marc Guéhi (65%), and Van de Ven (61%) fall short of Van Dijk when it comes to duelling success.
Even the much-lauded William Saliba only has a duel success rate of 58%, and while these defenders actually boast good statistics, the level of dominance Van Dijk demonstrates against his opponents is anomalous.
Duel Win Percentages – Selected Premier League Centre-Backs
|Duel Win % (Per 90)||Aerial Win % (Per 90)||Ground Duel Win % (Per 90)|
|VVD||83% (4.8)||88% (3.7)||70% (1.2)|
|Romero||71% (5.9)||68% (2.6)||74% (3.3)|
|Botman||69% (4.0)||67% (2.4)||73% (1.6)|
|Guehi||65% (4.3)||57% (1.1)||69% (3.1)|
|Van de Ven||61% (4.4)||45% (1.6)||79% (2.8)|
|Saliba||58% (2.6)||55% (1.5)||64% (1.1)|
*according to Sofascore
Looking more closely at Van Dijk’s impressive aerial stats, the Dutchman actually ranks fourth in the entire league in terms of aerial duel win percentage (Fbref). Only two defenders are ahead of the captain (one being teammate Joe Gomez and the other Brentford's Kristoffer Ajer), but no player who has contested at least 12 aerial duels has a higher win percentage.
Defending, however, is much more than simply winning individual battles.
The Dutchman, while somewhat slower on the turn after his ACL injury, is still rapid in transition defence, and very few defenders are as capable as him when marshalling a high line like Liverpool’s. Additionally, his positioning has been excellent, as has his box defending – think back to the Tottenham game where Liverpool defended with eight outfield players for 25 minutes.
Virgil van Dijk’s well rounded skill set allows him to excel in all areas of the pitch, even with his defensive teammates around him struggling sometimes, and Alexis Mac Allister playing out of position as the deepest midfielder.
Van Dijk’s 2023/2024 season has been excellent, but it would be inaccurate to suggest that he has been flawless.
For example, the Dutchman struggled against Brighton, with João Pedro often dragging the captain out of position before linking play with his teammates.
As well as this, Van Dijk played Mac Allister into trouble with a poor pass into midfield, and this led to Brighton’s opening goal. On this occasion, there should be legitimate criticism of Van Dijk’s decision making, as he had the time and space to be more aware of the situation.
As a result of this error, some have begun to question things such as whether Van Dijk has the patience to play out from the back in a more controlled manner. However, criticism of the Dutchman’s temperament on the ball is largely unfounded. For instance, against Brighton, Alisson and Mac Allister also share blame for the first goal, though none were helped by the fact Liverpool’s usual buildup style was altered.
The Reds tried to replicate De Zerbi’s approach of waiting on the ball, and this was a sudden change for players accustomed to Klopp’s more proactive style. While the captain must share a portion of the blame, he was not aided by either the players around him, or the system itself.
Additionally, against Newcastle, his sending off was dubious, and the situation only occurred because of the midfield failing to provide the necessary protection for the backline.
Van Dijk was also criticised for Jarrod Bowen’s goal at Anfield, but again, midfield issues allowed the situation to occur in the first place, with Dominik Szoboszlai bizarrely occupying the deepest midfield role. Perhaps the Dutchman could have reacted better, but he could not have expected the Englishman to make a risky dive at his feet.
On the whole, Van Dijk gets criticised far more than his rivals, and while that is partly due to the expectations he has set, there seems to be a real clamour amongst media outlets to discredit the Dutchman.
Still the Best in the World
Virgil van Dijk ranks among the best centre-backs to have ever played the game.
When in-form, the 32-year-old is perhaps the only active centre-back without a fundamental weakness. For example, Saliba can struggle positionally and physically, Romero can be too aggressive, Van de Ven and Guéhi are weak aerially, and Botman can struggle against pace.
When Virgil van Dijk has been good, Liverpool have competed for titles. Alisson and Salah have helped Liverpool bridge the gap to Manchester City, but it is the Dutchman’s impact that is felt the most.
If the Reds captain can maintain his form, then silverware is a real possibility for Liverpool this season.