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One aspect of Virgil van Dijk's play has transformed Liverpool and he is now the most vital player in Premier League race



Liverpool’s Virgil Van Dijk

Liverpool’s Virgil Van Dijk

Liverpool’s Virgil Van Dijk

For Liverpool, the challenge has now changed. They're not so much through the looking glass, but under proper focus; under proper title-race pressure.

That was one of the deeper effects of that first league defeat of the season, to Manchester City, beyond cutting that gap to four points. In ending that unbeaten run, the champions also ended Liverpool's sense of invincibility that does genuinely come with such streaks, and does tangibly embolden teams in tight games.

Liverpool are suddenly that bit more suspect and fragile for opposition sides. For the leaders themselves, it means that every match has transformed from a step to be taken to a challenge to be passed. That difference in perspective is important, and becomes more pronounced the more a title race is prolonged.

Take this weekend. With Liverpool now under pressure to respond to that defeat, a trip to a defensively robust side like Brighton and Hove Albion now looks so much more awkward, like one of the worst possible next fixtures.

Every title challenger in history knows the peril and importance of these types of games.

That is also why everyone at Liverpool is looking to Virgil van Dijk. Many in the squad describe the 27-year-old as the key factor against every club outside the big six. Some fully believe that they will win the title if Van Dijk doesn't get injured.

If some of this seems counter-intuitive given that the customary difficulty against such teams is breaking them down - and you would feel Mohamed Salah or Roberto Firmino would be most important - it is down to that psychological effect the centre-half has, as well as what he does more directly.

How many times have we seen such scenes, after all, not least with Liverpool over the years? A big team is pounding away at a packed defence, and getting increasingly frustrated, only to suddenly get completely stung - and stunned - on the break by a lone attack.

Liverpool players say this is something Van Dijk is utterly exceptional at cutting out. One player spoke of how it is extraordinary that he is "always in the right place", in a way that is similar to N'Golo Kante, if differently executed.

Watch how effortlessly he positions himself in runs to just show an attacker to the side, and then brush him off with his back. It's so assured.

This is how Liverpool have only conceded three goals in 14 matches so far against the 14 Premier League clubs beyond the big six. It could be the key trend of the season.

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Along the same lines, watch how key top-club attackers - like Sergio Aguero with Dejan Lovren last week - will instantly drift away from Van Dijk, and toward whichever centre-half is playing alongside him. Another player quipped that Van Dijk could even make "Loris Karius look good for a while".

It's all the more important given that Liverpool's run-in is mostly defined by such fixtures, given they've already played away to all of the top six bar Manchester United.

One former title-winner with Arsenal also confided that he felt Van Dijk could be compared to Tony Adams, and noted a contrast with Tottenham Hotspur's 3-1 defeat to Wolves. In that game, it could be seen that something was going wrong for Spurs, but - without Jan Vertonghen - there was no one there to sense it and act on it. "What Tony would have done," the former player said, "was realise this and bring everyone back 10 yards to dig in to weather that bad spell." This is also what Van Dijk does.

Perhaps even more relevantly in that regard, he has been compared to Alan Hansen. Van Dijk just has that natural talent for attuning himself to the pace of a game and his team, something that is all the more important when both get a bit panicked. He brings composure, and sets that standard.

"A real leader", of the type of Liverpool - and many other big clubs - have been missing.

That is the crucial other side of the assurance that comes from the knowledge he will always be in the right place, the deeper psychological effect of that. It further emboldens Liverpool's attack, and further frees them to keep persisting against packed defences without that fear of conceding can seep in.

Teammates have been so impressed with all this that they have openly wondered how it was that Van Dijk's talent could be missed for so long; how it was he didn't hit the big-time until the age of 26. Even one former manager felt he was "too slow".

Far from that, Van Dijk knows how to perfectly adapt to the pace of a game, and almost condition it himself.

That is going to be all the more important now that the pace of the title race ratchets up, and nerves naturally start to fray.

It is why they're all looking to Van Dijk, more than Salah, more than Firmino, more than anyone else. He is seen as the key to winning against everyone else, and thereby winning the title.

Independent News Service