Virgil van Dijk isn't as good as before – he's better

Rumours of Virgil Van Dijk’s decline have been greatly exaggerated. 

The Liverpool skipper turned 32 in July and rival fans, as well as certain pundits, seemed certain he was no longer the player he once was. Granted, he did give them ammunition with the red card against Newcastle United. Van Dijk was a little sluggish to react to the pass to Alexander Isak. Whereas in previous years he would’ve been in a position to cleanly poke the ball away from the Swedish striker having effortlessly accelerated into the vacant space, he had to kick through the attacker at St James’ Park.

In the grand scheme of things, while it felt like a harsh red card, it was the clearest indication that the Van Dijk we’re watching now isn’t the same Van Dijk of yesteryear. He was caught flat-footed and he didn’t look like the physical phenom we’ve all become accustomed to.

This wasn’t a one-off either.

Against Tottenham, the Liverpool No. 4 had a few yards on Heung-Min Son as the ball was played out to the Spurs left. He was then slow to react as Son raced into the penalty area to tap the ball into a vacant goal. It wasn’t the Dutchman’s fault but pre-ACL injury, you would’ve backed Van Dijk to win that foot race and clear the danger.

READ MORE: How does Virgil van Dijk compare to the Premier League's other top defenders?

Some have even tried to criticise Van Dijk for Jarrod Bowen’s goal in Liverpool’s win over West Ham. The England international burst into space ahead of the former Southampton defender to direct a diving header beyond Alisson Becker. It is clever movement on Bowen’s part and it isn’t exactly an error by the Dutch centre-back, but people just aren’t used to seeing that sort of thing happen.

The pass to Alexis Mac Allister in the 2-2 draw with Brighton was a little lax too. The World Cup winner was in the middle of a pressing trap and the pass into him slowed him right down. Simon Adingra stole the ball off him and capitalised to give the Seagulls the lead. In isolation, these situations aren’t that much of a concern. As a collective though, many felt it suggested that it was a clear sign that it was the beginning of the end for Van Dijk as the most dominant defender in the Premier League.

He clearly didn’t get the memo.

Following the international break, the Reds have kept back-to-back clean sheets in the league, picking up maximum points in wins over Everton and Nottingham Forest.

Surprisingly, the shutout against the Toffees was the first of the season with Van Dijk in the starting XI. He was instrumental in the 2-0 victory.

The 32-year-old attempted 106 passes and found a teammate 90% of the time against a resolute Everton team. He won both of his ground duels and came out on top in 10 of his 15 aerial duels, primarily against Dominic Calvert-Lewin. On the day, the Everton centre-forward won just five of his 18 aerial duels before being replaced after 61 minutes. He was completely nullified by the Liverpool captain.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, October 29, 2023: Liverpool's Wataru Endo during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Nottingham Forest FC at Anfield. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

He followed that showing up with another dominant display in the 3-0 win over Nottingham Forest. Now, the visitors weren’t exactly peppering the Liverpool goal but Van Dijk dealt with everything that came his way. The defensive behemoth completed 93% of the 112 passes he attempted at Anfield. He was successful in 100% of his ground duels and won eight of his nine aerial duels.

This has been the norm this season.

He’s busier than he’s ever been for Liverpool, competing in more tackles, making more blocks, clearances and interceptions while also being involved in a higher number of aerial duels.

READ MORE: Virgil van Dijk's new captaincy ritual adopted from Celtic days 

The impressive thing is that he’s also winning a higher percentage of, well, everything. Sometimes you’ll see a dominant centre-back scale their output and it impacts their success rates. It highlights those who almost cherrypick the duels they’re involved in to ensure they win them. Van Dijk doesn’t fall into that category. He’s involving himself in everything possible and coming out on top more often than not.

It is an evolution to his game. Perhaps a byproduct of the new system which sees him more heavily involved defensively.

It could also be a case of him being older and having more minutes in those legs. Whatever the reason for it, the focus should be on how he’s busier but arguably better.

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