SOMETIMES, the best players in the game are most conspicuous by their absence.
It evokes a sense of loss on a football pitch, so profound that the person and their presence can still be felt despite the fact they cannot grace the occasion.
Mohamed Salah in Kyiv is a recent example. Maybe those who spent years criticising Jordan Henderson should have realised how good he was the minute Liverpool couldn’t replace his industry and guile in the 2014 title run in.
Different players have different levels of value to the team they play for, of course. This season, Manchester City felt the loss of Aymeric Laporte heavier than they ordinarily would, given Vincent Kompany’s departure and a backup list of centre backs so devoid of competence they had to draft a 34-year-old Fernandinho in to cover.
The return of Laporte for 78 minutes in the 1-0 win over Sheffield United on Tuesday was important for City. As mentioned, if they’d dragged Richard Dunne out of retirement in the past four months it would’ve been a considerable upgrade on Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones.
City only conceded one shot on target, but that was more United’s doing than anything else. As good as Chris Wilder and his team has been, it is clear at times against the better teams they are only good up to a point.
The visible lack of cutting edge from the home team was more of an issue than any suggestion that City had some impenetrable force field reinstalled at centre back.
Yet Pep Guardiola was clearly gushing at full time and took the opportunity in his press duties to hail his French defender as “the best left-sided centre back in the world”.
The emphasis on the left side won’t be lost for two reasons. The first being that is where Virgil van Dijk plays for Liverpool and the second being that Liverpool is never far away from Guardiola’s thoughts, to the point you start to wonder if he grew up a stone’s throw from County Road not caring what the Redshite say.
To compare van Dijk and Laporte in terms of attributes is futile, as everyone will have their own opinion. Guardiola clearly has his, but if he does truly believe what he said and isn’t merely building Laporte’s confidence as he guides his way back to full fitness, then the question should be what constitutes being the best?
Maybe that’s a question the Spaniard would never ask, as he knows that what van Dijk brings is far beyond what Laporte can ever offer. The Reds’ number four has improved his team and the players around him immeasurably.
That quality simply cannot be matched by anyone else in the game apart from Lionel Messi, according to FIFA. Look at it this way; at some point it is highly likely that Fernandinho ends up back at centre back next to Laporte this season due to the ineptitude of the other two options available to Guardiola.
Yet if one of Stones or Otamendi were Liverpool players, could you honestly say that they would look so hopeless with the reassuring presence of van Dijk next to them? He has had the same impact on all three other centre backs at the club, all of whom have had their credentials questioned at some point.
What van Dijk brings to Liverpool can’t be quantified, let alone compared. More importantly, he is now part of a body of work which ensures the cogs turn regardless, and isn’t reliant on one particular aspect being constantly present at all times. This is a football team now governed by ethos over ability which wins through the collective overriding the individual.
Guardiola can say and believe whatever he likes when it comes to his players. The fact remains that Liverpool and van Dijk are conducting themselves in a way that doesn’t offer comparison.
While his influence can’t be measured by absence, it is the ignorance of bliss from life before the Dutchman which now serves to show both the level he’s set and how undeniably important he is to Liverpool Football Club.
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"Everyone was saying beforehand, 'Imagine how much it would go off if he played, and he scored the winner', and then he did play, he did score the winner and it did absolutely go off." 💥
Two years ago Virgil van Dijk made his Liverpool debut… pic.twitter.com/nTwEYyCefg
— The Anfield Wrap (@TheAnfieldWrap) January 5, 2020