Monday 28 May 2018

Liverpool fans must ask themselves a key question about Virgil van Dijk

Virgil van Dijk has been Liverpool's top transfer target throughout 2017
Virgil van Dijk has been Liverpool's top transfer target throughout 2017

Mark Critchley

“Halfway through the season, maybe we can see what’s possible,” Virgil van Dijk said from the safety of his home country, the Netherlands, on Tuesday.

The Southampton defender waited precisely one international break before re-opening the wounds of the summer's longest-running transfer saga, with Liverpool still understood to be his destination of choice.

There are clear obstacles to the move - namely Southampton's displeasure with Liverpool's initial approaches for Van Dijk back in June and their reluctance to lose a sixth player to Anfield in the last three years. If it does come off though, many on Merseyside will be happy, confident that their side's long-standing defensive problems have been put to bed.

Van Dijk or indeed any highly-rated centre-half is now thought of as the panacea for Liverpool, the difference between a title challenge and their current inconsistencies. Without even having signed, Jürgen Klopp's next centre-half is being asked to meet near-impossible expectations and, whoever it is, they will be under greater scrutiny than any of the manager's previous signings.

This invites an obvious question: What if he makes a mistake?

Individual errors are, according to Klopp, the very thing holding Liverpool's defence back. This interpretation can be questioned but the statistics suggest that much of the time, his system works. Liverpool are effective at limiting the number of chances they give to their opponents and have conceded the second-lowest amount of shots on goal of any team in the Premier League this season. The problem is, when those chances come, they are good ones. Like Joselu's equaliser for Newcastle United in Sunday's 1-1 draw, for example.

Liverpool's support is tired of this. They will show patience to new players who have the ability to succeed and put the hard yards in, but they have also understandably lost trust in a defence which has let them down time and again. The next hulking great individual error or collective cock-up never feels more than a moment away and each one only increases the scrutiny on those at the back.

Several members of Klopp's defence simply are not trusted by large sections of his support and, by contrast, Klopp has been criticised for showing too much faith in these players.

When Loris Karius was handed a surprise start against Arsenal in August, Anfield was nervous. The goalkeeper's assertive punching and claiming of crosses was applauded and encouraged, but each time he dwelt on the ball for a second or two longer than usual, there were panicked cries. Late in that game, when Karius elected to hoof the ball clear first-time, those cries were replaced by ironic cheers.

Alberto Moreno has quietly got on with his job since returning as Klopp's first-choice left-back and improbably saving his Anfield career. Yet there is still a sharp intake of breath in the stands each time the erratic Spaniard tries one of his trademark 'corkscrew' tackles from behind in an attempt to win the ball from a winger who's already beaten him.

Dejan Lovren, one of the five to arrive from Southampton since the summer of 2014, is the most criticised player of all. The Croatian has a habit of undermining his better spells in the team with a big error, which is followed by another while he is trying to atone for the first. Talk to those who watched him regularly at St Mary's before his move north and they will say those mistakes were always there to see.

What of Van Dijk, then?

Is he Franco Baresi reincarnate? Not quite. He can be quite a passive defender, which is arguably the very opposite of what Liverpool's reactive backline requires.

There are also significant questions about his positional play, which are overlooked by many when they are, with respect, buried down the order on Match of the Day. Van Dijk uses his pace to make up for these positional lapses and often gets away with it but whether he plays his football at Southampton, Liverpool or elsewhere over the next few years, there will be times when his limitations are exposed.

So, if Van Dijk moves to Liverpool, what happens if he made a mistake? Or more accurately: if Van Dijk moves to Liverpool, what happens when he makes a mistake, perhaps several of them? Then it will be time to do everything that Klopp has asked for over the last few weeks and months: to show faith; to encourage; to support; to believe that these flawed players can improve and trusting them to do so.

Online Editors

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport