Tuesday 16 July 2019

With van Dijk Liverpool can push on in new year

Damian Stack looks at some of the stories making back page news over the past seven days

It was the eye-roll seen around the world. A moment to endear the new man to the Anfield faithful. With his eyes he was saying what they were thinking.

The frustration was both palpable and understandable. Just two minutes into the traditional Christmas fixture at Anfield and the ball was already nestling in the back of Loris Karius' net, the result of another one of those costly, easily preventable and wearisomely familiar Liverpool defensive foul-ups.

This time the majority of the blame attached itself to Joel Matip. Ensconced in the directors' box Virgil van Dijk made no real effort to hide his disdain and his distaste for what he'd just witnessed. Surely he didn't think his very human reaction would be seen by anybody other than those in his immediate vicinity.

It's an early lesson, perhaps, to the Dutchman that life in Liverpool isn't like that at Southhampton or even in football-mad Glasgow. Welcome to the goldfish bowl where every move you make will be scrutinised forensically.

Given the chance to do it all again van Dijk would surely prefer instead to sit there in stony-faced silence, betraying not a hint of the emotion swirling beneath the surface.

That probably would have been the safer thing to do. That way there would have been a little less hostage given to fortune. Then again that's kind of an inescapable fact of life when you've just become the most expensive defender the game has ever seen.

One way or another van Dijk will be under enormous pressure from here on out. We know he thinks he can do better and for £75m he'd bloody well want to. If not his Anfield eye-roll will become a stick for critics to beat him with. Iconic for all the wrong reasons.

The buck stops with van Dijk now and he's smart enough to know it too. He's smart enough to know that and smart enough not to let the price-tag get to him. To succeed at the top you need that sort of self-assuredness. £75m, yeah, what about it? Worth every penny.

When the mistakes come - and they will come - he's got to be confident enough in himself to learn whatever lessons need to be learned and power on regardless. Life at Liverpool isn't going to be easy - as several commentators have noted being a defender in a Jürgen Klopp side is not for the feint of heart - but van Dijk is ready for it.

We know for a fact he's wants to be there. We know for a fact he's up for the fight. If not he would have pushed for a move to Manchester City this transfer window. To come to Liverpool he turned down an all but certain Premier League winners medal.

To come to Liverpool he had to get over the disappointment of last summer, his faith in Klopp and the Kop undiminished despite the farcical way the original effort to bring him to Melwood collapsed.

Van Dijk arrives at a time when things are really beginning to look up for the Klopp project. There are set-backs - the draw with Arsenal at the Emirates showcased the best and the worst of Liverpool - but the direction of travel is one way: upwards.

Aside from the set-back in north London, the festive period has shown a grittiness and determination from a Liverpool side previously better known for brittleness in the face of set-backs.

Even in the Arsenal game, Liverpool managed to pull themselves together for long enough to strike back for an equaliser. In the wake of a three goal collapse that is genuinely praiseworthy. The Reds didn't fold, they battled back and got something from the game.

After Matip's mishap on the weekend, Liverpool bossed Leicester and, while they were occasionally a little too keen, occasionally trying to forcing it a bit too much, eventually they picked the lock with one of the best goals you'll see all season long.

Then on New Year's day Klopp's side battled back to take the spoils having had another one of those eye-roll inducing defensive faux-pas - Joe Gomez left Gudmundsson completely unmarked at the far post - when the game seemed all but in the bag.

That the two men who combined for the last minute winner - Dejan Lovren assisted Ragnar Klavan - are now in direct competition with van Dijk for game-time suggests that a rising tide raises all boats (Lovren and Klavan, by the way, have been in good form of late).

It all becomes mutually reinforcing. Liverpool are on the up. Van Dijk gives a vote of confidence to everything they're doing and they (hopefully) kick it up another gear after that again.

The only real fly in the ointment is the potential - likely even - departure of Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona. There is of course the chance that with van Dijk now in situ that Coutinho is impressed enough by the ambition of the club to commit to stay...

Yeah we're not quite believing it ourselves. Still why not dream a little while we can.

Happy New Year!