Right from the start of the summer transfer window, Liverpool were linked with Virgil van Dijk but an alleged tapping up situation meant that Jurgen Klopp couldn’t sign his number 1 defensive target in the summer.
Nevertheless, the club eventually got their man in the winter transfer window for £75m which is surely more than what Liverpool wanted to pay for the player but sometimes you have to pay more than you want to in order to land a top player.
Van Dijk’s arrival instilled a sense of optimism at the club as he is meant to be the man to steady the shaky Liverpool defence and make it as good as the team’s attack.
When Liverpool failed to sign him in the summer, what many fans couldn’t comprehend is why Klopp decided against signing an alternative and decided to wait a few months more to get his prime target.
So why does Jurgen Klopp think Virgil van Dijk is the solution for Liverpool’s infamous defensive woes? Well, we have a statistical explanation for the same.
Solution to Liverpool’s biggest nemesis - aerial balls
Liverpool are a treat to watch going forward but on the other end of the pitch, all it takes for the defence to crumble like a pack of cards is just one long ball over the top.
The Reds have a notorious defence that often fails to maintain its composure and also struggles with set-piece situations. Even if they clear the first ball, the second ball often leads to a goal as can be seen from the last minute goals scored by the likes of Watford and Sevilla this season.
What Van Dijk brings to the table is the ability to deal with aerial balls emphatically and instead of just stating it, we would like to back it up with stats.
We compared some key defensive statistics of Liverpool’s senior centre-backs, Dejan Lovren, Joel Matip and Ragnar Klavan from their time with the club to that of Virgil van Dijk’s Premier League statistics.
All the below mentioned statistics were calculated using Squawka and to make the comparison fair, we have used the average per 90 minutes.
Before we dissect the above stats, we need to acknowledge the fact that Van Dijk played for Southampton, a team that needs more defensive actions per 90 minutes than Liverpool, even then the stats paint a huge picture.
Van Dijk’s superior aerial duels won per 90 minutes numbers may be because of having to defend more at Southampton but he has the best success rate in aerial duels despite having to enter more duels. The Dutchman’s addition to the squad means that Liverpool could potentially be less vulnerable to the long ball tactics than they were before.
Lovren matches up to Van Dijk to an extent in certain areas which is probably why Klopp trusted him for so long but the Croatian is too error-prone for a team aiming to reach the pinnacle of the football world once again. He makes mistakes more frequently than anyone else above and Liverpool have conceded several costly goals from those mistakes.
Van Dijk is not free of errors but despite having to engage in more defensive actions than the other three, he has only made one mistake per season at Southampton and none of them have led to a goal.
In Lovren’s case, he has made 12 defensive mistakes in his Liverpool career with 5 of them leading to goals!
Van Dijk made his Liverpool debut against Everton in an FA Cup match and scored with a header to win the game for his side. Thus, he showed his superior aerial strength can also come in handy at the other end of the pitch.
Playing it out from the back
Jurgen Klopp is yet another modern-day manager who likes his team to play the ball out from the back rather than hoofing it upfield. He too likes defenders who are composed on the ball and can pass it around.
In this scenario also, we have to bear in mind that Van Dijk played for Southampton because Liverpool are a team that keeps the ball in possession more than Southampton and that reflects in passing statistics too.
Lovren, Matip and Klavan have a far superior rate of passes per 90 minutes than Van Dijk and all three of them have a better passing accuracy too with 86%, 87% and 89% respectively in comparison to Van Dijk’s 83%.
Based on last season’s passing statistics, 81.72 percent of the passes Van Dijk makes is a forward pass. In comparison, Lovren, Matip and Klavan have 77.96%, 70.60% and 77.45% respectively.
The Dutchman also has a better average passing length of 21.67m which edges Lovren and Klavan who have 21.17m and 21.05m respectively but is superior to Matip’s 20.10m.
Van Dijk is known for his affinity to take the ball, drive forward and pass between the lines. He often sprays passes from defence to the forwards which explains his better average pass length and lower pass accuracy to an extent, but in Liverpool’s case, with the pace of Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, a pass from Van Dijk could unlock a tight game!
The addition of Van Dijk surely addresses Liverpool's defensive woes but his passing ability and aerial strength could come in handy at the other end of the pitch as well.