He came off the bench in his return from injury, to score the only goal of the match.
We’re almost at the pointy end of our countdown of the ten best Liverpool signings of the 2010s. Today: pick No. 2.
2. Virgil van Dijk
£75m from Southampton on 1 January 2018
Perhaps by no more than a knife’s edge have I chosen colossal centre-half Virgil van Dijk as the second-best Liverpool signing of the 2010s.
But such has been the mastery of the former Celtic and Southampton man in only two full years at the club, collecting a multitude of individual and team honours in a spell that has catapulted him into superstardom.
In fact Virgil van Dijk’s ascension at Liverpool has almost created a blank spot in the collective world football brain of a former glaring weakness on Merseyside: defending.
Jurgen Klopp had firmly established his game plan at Liverpool by 2017. The Reds were blitzing teams with 60 to 70 minutes of counter-pressing mania, utilising transitions at astonishing pace to build a highlight reel of aesthetically pleasing team goals.
But for every ‘this is football’ moment for Jurgen Klopp, uppercutting Anfield air in gratifying release, there was a moment of madness in defence to undo all the hard work.
I’m not going to pretend that signing Virgil van Dijk was the simple quick fix to Liverpool’s defensive problems. Klopp adjusted his tactics, learnt from mistakes and made Liverpool more economic all round.
However, I can’t deny the sense of impenetrability with the Dutchman in the heart of Liverpool’s back line.
No Premier League outfit conceded less than Liverpool’s 22 in 2018-19, the best defensive record for the club since Bob Paisley’s Reds shipped in a measly 16 goals in a 42-game season in 1978-79.
At the time of writing, Liverpool have suffered defeat just once in their last 57 Premier League matches. Virgil van Dijk’s importance to that record is paramount, having started every league match and missing only 35 minutes of action.
Van Dijk was similarly central to Liverpool’s sixth European coronation, missing only the first leg of the Round of 16 clash with Bayern Munich.
As composed with the ball at his feet as he is judging a challenge in the air, Van Dijk is probably what you would end up with if a mad scientist had the freedom to construct the ideal defender.
He’s comfortable playing in Liverpool’s high block thanks to a scary change of pace that we’ve seen on only a handful of occasions. That’s a quality he shares with defensive prodigy Joe Gomez and a reason why many Reds fans believe that duo is preferred when full squad selection is available.
Van Dijk’s range of passing is key to Liverpool’s possession game, which can switch to all-out attack in an instant with his razor-sharp diagonals. It’s important if Liverpool want to avoid a press or simply catch an opponent off-guard – another method of attack to ensure opponents are never given a moment to breathe.
His ability to read the movements of attackers is key to cleanly winning the ball back, earning praise from a man kept unusually quiet in a Champions League semi-final at Anfield, Lionel Messi.
“He knows how to judge his timing and wait for the right moment to challenge or jockey,” said Messi. “He is impressive both in defence and attack because he scores lots of goals.”
Indeed, Van Dijk has found the net in all five seasons he’s spent in the Premier League, making a nuisance of himself from set pieces with towering presence and well-timed runs into the box. The Dutchman took that scoring knack to the Champions League, notching a vital header against Bayern Munich in the Round of 16 en route to eventual glory in Madrid.
Additionally – and perhaps most tellingly – football fans took note of how many times Virgil van Dijk was dribbled past in the Premier League in 2018-19: zero.
Just imagine all those years ago when Liverpool’s defensive responsibilities rested on the shoulders of world-beaters such as Andrea Dossena, Paul Konchesky and Sotiris Kyrgiakos that we would get to the point where essentially a magnifying glass was required to identify a flaw in one of Liverpool’s defenders.
The impact Virgil van Dijk has had at Liverpool in a relatively short amount of time makes him one of Jurgen Klopp’s wisest moves at Anfield, making a mockery of any premature notions that Liverpool overpaid for his signature.
A second-place finish in the 2019 Ballon d’Or makes Virgil van Dijk the best-ranked Liverpool player in the prestigious award since Michael Owen claimed the prize in 2001. Despite this, I haven’t placed him atop this list and I can’t blame you for wondering why.
Put plainly, the man who has taken the No. 1 spot in my list has exceeded expectations when expectations weren’t even there in the first place.
That will obviously be explained in detail when I finally wrap up the ten best Liverpool signings of the 2010s. Nonetheless, Van Dijk was always going to appear in the upper echelon of my list. His achievements cannot be denied and the influence he’s had at Liverpool is nothing short of extraordinary.