The Dutch central defender Virgil van Dijk was recruited from Southampton in 2017 as the most expensive defender in football history. Since his arrival at Liverpool scoring in the first game against Everton he has proven why the Reds unpack that amount of money.
Van Dijk has solidified Jürgen Klopp’s defense, being the best this season in the Premier League only conceding 21 goals, receiving ten fewer goals than Manchester City. He is not just a defender, with an attacking past, he has a versatility to play in-possession adapting to Liverpool’s style when playing against different opponents.
In this scout report, we are going to do a deep tactical analysis of Virgil Van Dijk in this 2019/20 season. The analysis will focus on different areas of what some conclude to be the best central defender of the world. His ability to read the game in all the phases makes him the perfect central defender for Klopp’s tactics.
Intelligence to read the game
Klopp’s style relies on a highly attacking team, in which sometimes both of the fullbacks will be position high on the pitch leaving the centre-backs exposed, with huge spaces to be cover. Awareness becomes essential for the back two, as they need to know where the rivals are and which are their options. Most of the time, the opponents of the Reds use counter-attacks as the only way to attack them, this would involve fast transitions in which Liverpool will only count with the two centre-backs and possibly the centre-midfielder. Van Dijk has the perfect capabilities in these scenarios, as he can fast read the situation and anticipate the play reducing the chance of a counter-attack. He outperforms his centre-back team-mate Joe Gomez in both recoveries and counter-pressing recoveries, 14.49 vs 13.68, and 6.67 vs 6.32 per game respectively.
His speed supports his anticipation capabilities, he is quick in reading the play and accelerating to deactivate the rival’s attack. You will not imagine from a 1.93m-tall to have such an acceleration, but his athleticism is indeed remarkable. In the next picture, we can see his intelligence to read the game and anticipate through pace. In a defensive transition, the Reds defensive line has pushed up leaving Bournemouth attacker offside. Van Dijk knowing where the rivals are, he just needs to look to the ball and anticipate the horizontal pass to the central lane, accelerated intercepting the pass, and starting the counter-attack for the second goal for the Reds.
As we said before most of the times the Reds central-defenders will be attacked with pace and in numerical or positional superiority. Numerical superiority caused by the number of players that Klopp’s team involves in their attacks and positional superiority because attackers have the advantage of running frontwards towards the goal and the option of using the blind-sides. Albeit, Van Dijk excels in these inferiorities’ when challenged, mainly by reading the play and taking a fast decision without needing to get involved in a duel or tackle. In the next picture, we can see this applied in a counter-attack against Wolverhampton, in which the rivals managed to get into the box. Van Dijk nor challenge the ball-carrier neither sits deep protecting the goal, he instead read the cross-back intended to the edge of the box and intercepted the ball brilliantly. He already knew who was on his blind-side and read that situation perfectly.
In ball possession
Van Dijk is not just a good defender, his in-possession attributes in control of the ball make him a complete player. Klopp’s tactics need from his players’ versatility to adapt to the different styles of the opposition, and Van Dijk accomplishes that perfectly. Most of the time the Reds will face teams who sit back in a low compact block, from here is where we are going to see one of the best attributes of Van Dijk which is his ability to break this low-block using long cross-passes behind the defensive line. In the next picture, we can see in the game against Bournemouth his passing range as he placed a long cross-pass behind the defensive line.
Sometimes Klopp’s team will be facing a medium or high block opposition, which in this case requires from the central defenders to drive forward to overcome the first line of pressure and to commit the 2nd line of pressure. In the next picture, we can see the aforementioned capabilities when in-possession against a medium block applied by Manchester United. He first dribbled up passing the striker pressing him, then he read perfectly the scenario up the pitch and made a long cross-pass connecting Mohamed Salah in the wide channel.
If we just focus on stats, we will not understand why such a defender will only commit to 3.06 defensive duels on average per match, 11 less than Tottenham Hotspurs leader in this tally Juan Foyth with 14.67 defensive duels per game. This is part of what we already mentioned in the first section, his anticipation capabilities allow him to win the ball without even forcing a challenge or a tackle. In the next picture we can see this repeated high in the pitch, West Ham United recovered the ball in the central area and looked to pass the ball to the side to the only forward option they had. Van Dijk anticipated the play knowing that his rival was the only pass available to escape from the Reds counter-pressing. Even been behind his rival, he accelerated through the blind-side and used his body to protect the ball, without allowing West Ham player to even connect the ball.
The other attribute he used in the defensive duels is his body, we can see his agility to quickly move his 93 kg body to block balls and get rid of rivals. In a 50-50 situation, rivals will require a lot of strength to outplayed Van Dijk, as he can accelerate fast and position his body in front of the ball not giving any chance. In the next picture, we can see a 50-50 ball on the edge of the small box, which would mean conceding a goal if Raúl Jiménez connects it. Van Dijk’s agility to move his body in front of the ball was perfect not giving a chance to Wolverhampton striker to connect it.
He will also use all his capabilities in numerical inferiority to reduce rivals attacking duels, firstly intelligently reading the play and then using his body agility to speed and win the duel in the precise moment. In the next picture, we can see a counter-attack by Manchester United in which he faced a 2 v 1, the ball carrier advancing through the central lane an in behind the striker running through the blind-side. He managed this situation perfectly, he firstly sited back denying the option for a pass behind his back delaying the counter-attack. Once Andrew Robertson has recovered and took the striker on his blind-side, he speeded closing the lane for the ball carrier in the edge of the box, ending the counter-attack.
This scout report won’t be complete if we don’t mention his aerial capabilities, essential for any centre-back. Van Dijk combines his intelligence to read where the ball is going to be and his physical agility to exploit his 1.93m to win in both areas, he averages 6.34 aerial duels per game with a high rate of success of 74.62%. If he commits to an aerial duel it is nearly sure that he is going to win it, we can see this in the next picture. He does not mind stepping over the midfield-line to easily win that duel.
Klopp exploits Van Dijk aerial capabilities in set-pieces using other players to block rivals and release Van Dijk from his markers. In the next picture, we can see Georginio Wijnaldum blocking Michail Antonio whilst Van Dijk uses his agility to fast move in front of his marker and attack the center with great timing connecting the ball. He has scored ten headers since his arrival to Liverpool, four of them on this season in the Premier League.
We have gone through a deep tactical analysis of what is meant to be the best central defender of the moment. The questioning on this player is why it took him so long to exploit, albeit being a central-defender gives him a long time to keep exploiting and reaffirming his top rank as a central defender as it is a position that tends to allow a later retire.
One thing that this defender is missing is cups, just 19 cups are only a few compared with the likes of Raphaël Varane that is one-year younger and already account 64 cups. Some could also argue the lack of trophies, but they already started to arrive and we foresee more to come to this great central defender in Liverpool.