Tuesday 20 November 2018

Comment: Van Dijk will show if Reds issues are down to players or manager

As the best header of the ball in the team, it's the same position which Van Dijk (p) took up in defending corners at Celtic under Ronny Deila - with mixed results. Photo: PA
As the best header of the ball in the team, it's the same position which Van Dijk (p) took up in defending corners at Celtic under Ronny Deila - with mixed results. Photo: PA
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

The question of whether Virgil van Dijk is worth £75million is as relevant as whether the one-bed, ground-floor apartment in Dublin's north inner city was worth over €300,000 in 2006. If somebody is willing to pay it, what it's really worth doesn't matter.

Just like the people who indebted themselves to the banks for 30 years back then, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp urged everybody to forget the fee and focus instead on how their new purchase will help them move up the ladder. Once, of course, it isn't kicked out from under them.

Still, even in an arena as awash with wealth as the Premier League where the team finishing bottom last season earned £100m, such a fee for a 26-year-old with limited Champions League experience and only 16 caps for one of the worst Dutch teams in decades represents a gamble. But mostly for Klopp's reputation.

What Van Dijk's arrival will show is whether Liverpool's defensive issues are because of the players they have, or the manager they employ.

After the 3-3 draw against Arsenal, Klopp argued that "individual mistakes" had cost them which shifts blame away from the training ground where such errors could have been legislated against and is managerial code for "it's nothing to do with me".

That draw at the Emirates meant Liverpool had lost 43 points in the league from winning positions since Klopp arrived and, when debacles like coughing up a 3-0 lead in Sevilla are thrown into the mix, Liverpool now find themselves in the same sphere as Arsenal where every goal conceded is analysed for "familiar failings".

Under Klopp, Liverpool thrive in high-octane, chaotic games which means they can often take the lead and then overwhelm opponents but, when a second goal doesn't arrive, their lack of composure in retaining possession inevitably invites pressure. In Van Dijk, they have signed a player, even from centre-back, who has the ability to bring some control to the chaos without taking the sort of risks Joel Matip did to cost them a goal on Saturday.

In theory, Van Dijk's pace should neuter some of the counter-attacking threat to which Liverpool have been vulnerable but, in practice, Klopp's system places such responsibility on the two centre-backs to cover the entire width of the pitch when Liverpool are attacking that even having Usain Bolt holding the fort might not be sufficient.

At half-time in the first game of this season, Liverpool were 2-1 down at Watford, having conceded goals to a counter-attack and a corner and, in the Sky Sports studio, Jamie Carragher and Jamie Redknapp saw two completely different solutions.

Redknapp felt that, in marking zonally from corners, having a player like Van Dijk on the six-yard line in front of the goalkeeper to attack the ball was preferable to Roberto Firmino, who was struggling to fulfil his duties on that day. Carragher agreed to a point but, because of the way they were set up, was adamant that "one player isn't going to solve it".

As the best header of the ball in the team, it's the same position which Van Dijk took up in defending corners at Celtic under Ronny Deila - with mixed results.

Van Dijk's group stage experience in the Champions League came in the 2013/'14 season, and while it's difficult to be too critical of five defeats against the calibre of Ajax, Milan and Barcelona, Kaka's goal which opened the scoring at Celtic Park with a free header from a corner from five yards out with Van Dijk unmoved from his central position wasn't a good look.

Perhaps that was in his mind in August 2015 when Celtic were under pressure at home in the 95th minute against Malmo and he sliced a clearance behind when his team were 3-1 up and in command of their Champions League final qualifier tie.

Eager to be the dominant defender as the corner came in, Van Dijk left his position in front of the goal to attempt to win a header at the back post; he failed, the ball dropped where Van Dijk should have been and Jo Inge Berget made it 3-2.

In the second leg, Van Dijk was blocked from another corner as Markus Rosenberg got in front of him before yet another corner into the centre of the six-yard box found the net and saw Malmo comfortably through.

In all three instances, Van Dijk looked suitably enraged as he flailed his arms wildly in frustration and, as with every incident of zonal marking, it's possible to argue that somebody else could have done more. But, in his team's biggest games of the season, from three corners in an hour's worth of football, Van Dijk didn't do enough.

He has improved at Southampton but, unlike at Liverpool and Celtic, it's possible to make similar mistakes there without them being magnified, while impressive displays against big clubs are celebrated and likely to get you a move to one of them.

Much of Van Dijk's last 18 months have been interrupted by injuries and loss of interest but his reputation was secure from the 2015/'16 season when Southampton finished sixth, Liverpool eighth and Chelsea tenth.

Van Dijk featured in all 12 games against the "big six" when his team earned 20 points - or 1.66 per game - against Manchester City, Arsenal, Manchester United, Tottenham, Liverpool and Chelsea. At home, they beat City, Arsenal and Liverpool by a combined 11-4, away they beat Spurs, United and Chelsea 6-2 on aggregate.

finished By comparison, Leicester City, who won the league, took 17 points - three fewer - from the same 12 fixtures.

The reason Leicester finished 18 points ahead of them, however, is because Southampton fared worse against the bottom six than the top six. Van Dijk played in such 10 games, winning 14 points - 1.4 points per game - including defeats at Norwich City and Bournemouth and losing twice to Crystal Palace.

In terms of conceding goals from corners and struggling to beat inferior teams, Van Dijk's experience will be similar to those which his new team-mates have gone through under Klopp and, last week, the manager attempted to buy time for both the player and himself by saying Van Dijk "needs to adapt to our style of play".

"It's a completely different game, but we are 100 per cent sure he will do it," he added.

When your team has spent £75m, "time to adapt" is in short supply for any player but from aerial dominance in individual duels, to pace, to composure on the ball, Van Dijk is an improvement in every defensive characteristic currently at the club.

But if even he can't be the solution for £75m, Van Dijk won't be the one who needs to adapt.

Irish Independent

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