ALL eyes were on the world’s most expensive defender on Sunday.
The return of Virgil van Dijk just over a month after his record £75million move from Southampton to Liverpool was always going to be the headline, but an assured and measured performance from the Dutchman ensured that there would be no satisfactory schadenfreude moments for Saints fans, who were forced to see their former flame and his new colleagues comfortably dispatch their current team.
The home fans had arrived with their voices prepared in anticipation. They were ready to let van Dijk know just what they thought of him. Six minutes in, he calmly headed the ball back to Loris Karius and boos rang out. They had barely muted by the time Karius, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino combined to make it 1-0 seconds later.
The interesting thing about the Southampton booing circus whenever they play Liverpool is that they’ve assigned levels to each player. They don’t seem to mind Nathaniel Clyne or Sadio Mane, they’re not overly keen on Adam Lallana, and they absolutely despise Dejan Lovren.
Possibly my favourite part of Sunday’s game was Jürgen Klopp trolling to the extreme when he brought Lovren on with only a couple of minutes to go when he didn’t need to in the slightest. The only thing that would have topped it would have been if he’d brought van Dijk off at the same time for his “ovation”. It would have been the sort of move that would have made Vince McMahon proud.
I was sat in the upper Anfield Road for the reverse fixture earlier this season, just above the away support. It was remarkable just how dedicated they were to the Lovren hate, far more so than in showing support to their current players. The gaps between booing were filled with a crude and not overly creative song (which in fairness, made it funnier). The Croat had the last laugh though as The Reds comfortably won 3-0 that day.
It was a game that van Dijk didn’t enjoy much, getting pulled this way and that by Salah and Firmino. It would have been to his immense relief that this time, he was watching them do it to someone else.
It was to his credit that by the end of the game, the Saints fans used up the remainder of their boo quota to turn on their own team and manager.
I actually thought that was quite harsh. Between 1-0 and 2-0, Southampton were probably the better team. They played with aggression, commitment and regularly worked the ball into Liverpool’s box, only to be thwarted time and again by van Dijk and Karius. They did well until Firmino and Salah pulled their pants down (in a metaphorical way, not in a Huddersfield Town being so pleased with their day’s work that they get their willies out way).
Mauricio Pellegrino is all of a sudden under pressure, with a lot of Southampton fans apparently wanting Marco Silva to replace him. I’m not sure they’re a set of fans that should really be urging the appointment of someone with a history of disloyalty, to be honest.
As for van Dijk, it was interesting to see how mixed the reviews were of his start to life at Liverpool heading into the game. The media were clinging onto the fact that he was yet to keep a clean sheet in four appearances, despite a clean sheet seldom being down to one man.
In my humble opinion, he had been excellent on his debut against Everton, largely good at Swansea despite his role in the only goal of that game, admittedly poor against West Brom when everyone around him was too, and then excellent against Tottenham Hotspur, even if he was the one who Erik Lamela tricked into kicking him in the dying seconds.
As silly as it might sound, I haven’t been concerned with the goals going in (in terms of analysing van Dijk’s performances, obviously I’ve been kicking seven shades of shit out of nearby furniture generally). What I have been encouraged by in particular has been the calmness he brings to it all.
For several years, it has all felt a bit chaotic at the back for Liverpool when hopeful balls have been lobbed in, or loose balls have been bouncing around (again, not a Huddersfield reference). There has been visible panic from Reds defenders that has spread through the team and to the fans. What van Dijk seems to specialise in is cutting out all that bullshit and just constantly winning headers and knocking the ball to a teammate. His natural confidence in those situations is such a breath of fresh air, which itself breeds confidence in his teammates, and hopefully, fans too.
There is also the undeniable fact that he looks simply glorious in that bright orange kit. We’ve seen him play for Holland of course but there’s something about our orange kit that makes lads look imperious. I’d be well up for keeping that kit for future seasons. Our record in it has been excellent. Four wins and one draw, scoring 19 goals in the process. It must be so disconcerting to see anyone running at you looking like a Calippo, let alone a whole team of the luminous mavericks.
It remains to be seen who will be van Dijk’s long-term partner at centre back. So far he has played four games with Joel Matip and one with Lovren. I like the Cameroonian, which doesn’t seem to be a popular opinion these days, but admittedly his form has dipped of late so it will be interesting to see how many opportunities Lovren gets with the Champions League returning. It almost feels like an audition for both between now and the end of the season.
The price tag will inevitably hang over everything van Dijk does, but as long as the things he does involve excellent defending, then it won’t matter one bit.
It wasn’t just the ease with which he managed the game on Sunday, but the fun he had with it as time went on. Hitting a 50-yard free kick at goal was bananas, and when he decided that he was going to go on the left wing for a bit, I think even the Southampton fans realised that it was all turning into what it had been all along. One big pantomime. Virgil’s smirk as he ran back to his normal position said it all.
The way he dealt with yesterday’s hostilities was a measure of the man and it bodes well for him and Liverpool for the future. This Wednesday sees him play in the Champions League for the first time since his Celtic days, and he’ll fancy himself up against the firing pair of Moussa Marega and Vincent Aboubakar.
The world was waiting for van Dijk to mess up yesterday, and he disappointed them all with the sort of performance that saw him earn his move to Merseyside.
The 26-year old then endeared himself further to the fans with his ‘Unlucky’ comment in an interview with LFCTV after finding out about Manchester United’s defeat at Newcastle.
It’s still early days, but the signs are that it’s all of Liverpool’s rivals who are “unlucky” that van Dijk will be playing his football at Anfield for the next few years.
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The defence is not yet good enough. Karius is certainly not the goal keeper for the future. Even on Sunday against Southampton he repeated threw the ball out to a Southampton player before engaging his brain. We need somebody else in midfield to join Naby when he arrives in the summer. Accordingly a goal keeper and a midfield player to replace Can is urgently needed.
My views on the central defenders are never popular with Liverpool fans.
I think we all enjoyed what Carragher brought to the team once he moved there and quite rightly ignore any shortcomings he may or may not have had. I loved Sami Hyypia too. It’s the past decade my views become more controversial. I genuinely don’t think we’ve had a complete centre half in all that time. During that time Carra was on his last legs. Agger was rarely fit but when he was I feel he’s one of the most over rated players we’ve had. Ok, he had the tattoo on his knuckles which made him much better and he was a decent footballer and good on the ball but how good was he at clearing crosses with his head? That aspect alone has always been a point of contention for me in when discussing hm with fellow fans. I didn’t rate his heading.
It was similar to Skrtel. Remember those early seasons when he acquired a reputation as the terminator or the baby eater. Like Agger, I felt it was a narrative that stuck and people overlooked the fact that despite their hard (ish) reputations neither were good enough in the air. It’s absolutely crucial a Liverpool centre half has that as his main strength. Sakho was probably better than both in the air but he was clumsy. He was far, far from the complete centre half. Lovren and Matip have short comings too. Matip doesn’t have the alertness for a leader at the back. Lovren is my favoured choice and has been for years but to say he’s complete is folly. I like the idea of him with Virgil though.
So, to my point. Out and about in town I’ve had a few rival fans approach me to tell me what a waste of money Virgil is. He was shaky against West Brom but I’m so confident he’s the first proper defender we’ve had this decade. I see a ball come in to the box and get headed clear and I think ‘who was that’. Oh, it was Virgil. He can play the ball and he organises. So, like everyone, I’m absolutely made up we have him. To repeat, it’s the first time in a decade I’ve felt secure with our centre half. Early days but I can sense it. It just feels one less thing to worry about.
I’d agree with that. We’ve been hanging for a true leader at the back since Sami left, and as you said all out other CBs since that time have plenty of good points, but they’ve never been able to truly lead the backline, and were/far from imperious. It’s partially about the way we play but just as much about personnel. Virgil is the first CB since the big Finn that you could ever really call his rightful heir, how perfect that he inherited his number. Will Matip or Lovren be his Henchoz? Did Degsy play alongside VVD for the Saints, I don’t recall, but my money is on him. He’s a confidence player, and VVD will give him exactly that.
As an aside, I also loved his reaction during the Saints game. The laugh at the start: Priceless. The guy was as cool as you can ever look dressed like a highlighter pen. Calm and professional. Really though, you’d expect professional players to deal with this no worries, but young Sterling didn’t last time, lots don’t. If I were managing those players, I’d just be telling them that the amount of booing is an indicator of their love for you before you left them. If their ex-fans weren’t fussed about you, you mustn’t have been that good in their eyes. Otherwise, just tell them to convince themselves that their nickname is “Boo” and then any noise they hear is a cheer for them! #mindgamez
Suddenly our full backs are looking good too. Love to see that mad paddling Robbo does as he streams forward, but he is more adept as a defender than Moreno. T Double-A and Jo’mez have got a nice little battle on their hands at right back and when Nat Clyne comes back, he should still claim first dibs; mad squad depth. Joe may find himself transitioning into the role he plays for his country at CB or even across on the other side of the pitch so he’ll be very handy for us as he matures.
But as good as they can be, they’re all vulnerable and less protected than other teams by a truly defensive DM and until now, no clear leader in their ranks. If Virgil can sort the latter out then he is worth a lot more than half a Coutinho to LFC.
Lovren was only Saints for 12 months and played with Fonte. We all had one of them in our fantasy teams that season but it never became clear which one of them was good. The narrative has shifted back and forth on that one. I like Lovren. I like his story and I like his attitude. I’m a sucker for ‘when I was growing up my mum couldn’t afford boots or kit so I played naked on the back streets of (insert South American ghetto). Lovren’s story is a good one and I liked his interview last week when he said if he makes a mistake he doesn’t speak for days as a punishment on himself. Our very own Opus Dei monk.
I’d love him to succeed but deep down I think we need another partner for Virgil. For £20m it’d be worth the gamble.
It’s no coincidence we’ve won nothing in the last decade (ok, there was that). All winning teams have a base of good centre halves. I feel our woes are coming to an end there. I’m expecting a new keeper in the summer and like you say, our full backs aren’t too bad. In all honesty though, I seem to be one of the only people who doesn’t rate Gomez so much. I think Trent is better and I’m desperate to see Clyne return. There’s just too many mistakes. I’m not a fan of learning on the job to this extent. I just feel there’s been an over reaction to him. There was talk of him partnering VvD by some fans. Based on what? Anyway, I’m also confident the decade of defensive problems may be about to draw to close. It’s actually really exciting to think we can draw a line under it. That’s when the trophies will come and not before.
Van Dijk just looks such a natural and graceful centre-back, we really are lucky to have him, he would make any side better.
On the Saints fans, yes they’re a bit of a Tory bunch but in footy terms, it must be pretty maddening for them to see how good their side might have been if they had the means to hang on to their better players. That’s the way of things these days though, and we’re hardly immune to it ourselves.
Good stuff… one question, though: did Robbo contribute the headline?
The same thing happened under Rogers – we have a game where we didn’t concede and everyone wanked on about it being a new dawn – completely ignoring the one important statistic – the number of clear cut chances we conceded
The same happened here
We are still gifting opportunities to the opposition – just because the clowns playing for Southampton didn’t take them doesn’t mean our defence is now solid
Brilliant this. These articles get better and funnier.