The narrative is not altogether wrong: since the turn of the year, Liverpool have been a far better team than they were before Christmas.
Mohamed Salah’s contribution this season really sparked into life from the early-December Merseyside derby. He was having a decent debut season before that, but his curling goal that day perhaps revealed that we were watching a special player, rather than just a good one. Perhaps it was the departure of Philippe Coutinho that really allowed him to come into his own.
Since then, though, it’s been the arrival of Virgil van Dijk that many have pointed to as the pivot of the Reds’ season. Before then, they were seen as a shaky-at-the-back outfit with a great front line. Now, they’re a little more solid: no one thinks they’re the best defence in Europe, but nor is anyone really talking about them as being one rush of blood to Dejan Lovren’s head away from all-out disaster.
So has Van Dijk been the veritable Anfield panacea that many seem to imply that he has been?
The answer is a little more complex than a simple yes or no – but it’s closer to no than yes.
Since his arrival, the Dutchman has helped Liverpool to a top four finish and the final of the Champions League. He has played an integral role in the run to Ukraine, helping a shaky defence to withstand the pressure of Manchester City and the emotional energy of the two semi-final legs against Roma – one at a supercharged Anfield and the other at a Stadio Olimpico who would have believed their team capable of anything after their comeback against Barcelona in the previous round.
And yet, he has also been a figure in Liverpool’s defensive collapses against West Bromwich Albion in both the FA Cup and the league, he played in the second leg of the Champions League quarter final at the Etihad where – although Liverpool on the whole defended well and got the goal they needed to put the game to bed early in the second half – City could well have seen their task come within touching distance if it weren’t for a wholly questionable refereeing decision to disallow Leroy Sane’s goal towards the end of the first half.
Against Manchester United it was Dejan Lovren who was bullied by Romelu Lukaku to allow Marcus Rashford to fire the Red Devils to victory, and against Chelsea it was again the Croatian who was this time beaten in the air by Olivier Giroud who scored the only goal of the game.
Not all of these things are Virgil van Dijk’s fault: mistakes happen (mostly by others) and defeats are unavoidable (ask Manchester City). But before this Champions League final, where Liverpool will take on one of the most feared of Europe’s front lines outside of their own, it would be a mistake to think that Jurgen Klopp can consider doing anything other than outscore Madrid.
The January arrival in the heart of Liverpool’s defence does indeed add a new dimension. His calmness helps the fans to stay calm, too, and the overall atmosphere isn’t one of nerves every time the other team launches an attack.
And yet, his status as Liverpool’s defensive saviour seems premature – since the turn of the year, performances at the back have picked up, but you only have to look at results to see that they haven’t all been good.