Virgil van Dijk endured something of a mixed Premier League debut for Liverpool last night, following his club-record £75million transfer from Southampton. The headline was inevitably his role in the only goal in Swansea City’s shock 1-0 win, his weak clearing header eventually falling to the boot of Alfie Mawson.
Poor organisation at set pieces away from home has been a recurring flaw of Jurgen Klopp’s Anfield tenure and the Dutchman’s awkward header down into a pack of Swansea players was a much-needed reminded that he alone can’t remedy Liverpool’s biggest defensive problems.
But analyse van Dijk’s performance a little closer, and last night’s display showed exactly why Liverpool have invested such a staggering sum into the 16-cap Netherlands international. While he won’t solve the Reds’ defensive frailties single-handed, his quality on the ball is second-to-none by centre-back standards, something that particularly stood out as Liverpool retained 72% possession against a Swansea side who stuck ten men behind the ball from the opening whistle and rarely ventured out of their box after Mawson’s 40th-minute strike.
Indeed, barring the erroneous organisation during one of just three corners Swansea won – which certainly wasn’t the 26-year-old’s fault alone – van Dijk kept things solid at the back, making eight clearances and winning 10 aerial duels. And as Swansea allowed the centre-backs more and more time on the ball, his quality really stood out, creating two huge scoring chances – a lofted pass into Mohamed Salah and a late cross into the path of an unmarked Roberto Firmino – that Liverpool’s forwards really should have converted.
Additionally, van Dijk took three efforts at goal himself, had the most touches of the ball of any player on the pitch, completed the second-most passes of any player on the pitch – 119 – and produced Liverpool’s best pass completion rate of 95%.
It wasn’t quite a passing masterclass from the centre-back, simply because it failed to break down Swansea’s rampant rearguard, and will inevitably be overshadowed by a few calamitous moments at a corner that lead to a disappointing result. But van Dijk gave a glimpse last night of what an asset he can be for Liverpool in these types of games where the opposition are packed deep and the centre-backs are allowed to play.
While it didn’t pay off last night, that could well be the difference between Liverpool winning and losing next season against sides who set up as pragmatically as Swansea against top six opposition. The Premier League has those in copious supply at the moment and van Dijk’s passing quality makes Liverpool that bit likelier to consistently overcome them.