Liverpool: Forget the excuses, Virgil van Dijk has to step up
Jürgen Klopp says the defender won’t be at his best until next season but, for £75 million, Liverpool must expect van Dijk to make an impression soon.
After Jordan Pickford rushed out to claim Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s corner only to be beaten to the ball by the six-foot-three frame of Virgil van Dijk, it seemed like the Kop’s prayers for a defender had finally been answered.
Sure, he had been caught napping – flat-footed and motionless – by Gylfi Sigurðsson’s goal at the other end but it was a fine strike from the Icelander and one for which it would be harsh to apportion too much blame to the defender.
However, in recent weeks the Dutchman has seemed a little off the pace; a one-nil defeat at Swansea was followed by an FA Cup collapse at home to West Brom, and he was dropped for the 3-0 win at Huddersfield.
Liverpool still haven’t managed to keep a clean sheet with him in the side.
There are plenty of factors behind this so-so form.
The Dutchman missed a good portion of last season through injury and never really got up to full fitness in the first half of this campaign at Southampton, only making 12 appearances largely due to his well-publicised desire to move to Merseyside.
He has already had to sit out Liverpool’s match with Manchester City due to a thigh problem, and Jamie Carragher has suggested he doesn’t seem match fit.
Though he may not admit it to his face, Klopp is probably quite happy the Netherlands won’t be at this summer’s World Cup. His record-breaking signing can have a few months off, building up his fitness and resting.
A new manager
Van Dijk is also adapting to a new style of play under a new manager.
Liverpool’s attacking approach means the defence is left more exposed than he was used to at Celtic and Southampton, and he has been unlucky to have joined the club during a spell where Simon Mignolet and Loris Karius have at times seemed totally unable to save shots at goal.
On the other hand, he was signed for £75 million, after a pursuit which lasted months and cost his new club a good deal of embarrassment in the summer, and is entering a side supposed to be harbouring expectations of a push for second place and a Champions League run. With stakes like these, excuses don’t wash.
Just ask Paul Pogba. Ever since his £89 million move from Juventus two summers ago, every misplaced pass, failed dribble and errant shot has been met with a thousand tweets quoting his transfer fee alongside a mocking row of laughing emojis.
Alexis Sánchez’ gargantuan wage packet has already seen the Chilean subjected to the same treatment, and plenty of others have had likewise.
Liverpool supporters were among the most vocal in their derision of former Merseysiders Raheem Sterling and John Stones when they struggled to impress in their early days at Manchester City.
Held to higher standards
Of course, Klopp’s popularity means he and his players are afforded a little more leeway than others but the most expensive defender in the history of football has to be held to the highest standards.
If Van Dijk thought he would be moving clubs in January, there is little excuse for him to be overweight, as Carragher has suggested.
The very best of Virgil van Dijk might not be seen until next season, as Klopp has admitted; but given the form of his defensive teammates, he has to be making himself one of the first names on the teamsheet.
This weekend’s game with Tottenham Hotspur was a good opportunity for him to do just that.
Despite controlling the central defensive areas for his team, though, van Dijk’s game will be remembered more for the calamitous kick to Erik Lamela deep into injury time that led to Harry Kane’s second penalty.
Looking to the future
Next season, Naby Keïta will have arrived and Liverpool may also have gotten round to replacing Philippe Coutinho and bringing in a reliable goalkeeper.
Then, there will truly be no excuses – they simply have to win something.
But another year of progress, of building towards some hypothetical future glory, should not be accepted by the fans this season. Their marquee signing has to deliver now.