Virgil van Dijk's form is seriously worrying for Liverpool - they must pray it's only a short-term blip

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Virgil van Dijk Liverpool 2022-23
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The Dutchman is one of a number of key players whose form has dipped this season - but should the Reds be concerned that his best days are now over?

In many ways, Virgil van Dijk is the same now as he ever was. He still dominates aerially, still makes plenty of telling clearances and interceptions. He still carries himself with coolness and composure, still spears those wonderful, left-to-right diagonals out to Mohamed Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold.

And, to his eternal credit, he still fronts up after games. Win, lose or draw, it is usually the Dutchman who stops in the mixed zone to give his thoughts to the waiting media.

That was the case at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday. As the rest of his team-mates made their way silently, sullenly past the phones and the dictaphones - as well as the bizarre coterie of autograph hunters - towards the sanctuary of the team coach, it was left to Van Dijk to pick the bones out of the Reds’ latest disappointment, the latest setback in their seemingly-doomed quest to secure Champions League qualification. 

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“Very frustrating,” was his assessment of a 4-1 defeat which laid bare all of his side’s current frailties. To lose to Manchester City is acceptable, to lose in the manner Liverpool did is not. There would, Van Dijk revealed, be some “hard talking” between players and staff at Sunday’s post-match debrief.

In many ways, to watch Van Dijk this season is to watch Liverpool, individual struggles and frustrations mirrored by collective ones. The question, for both team and player, is whether this is a temporary dip or a permanent one.

Virgil van Dijk Liverpool 2022-23

The seeds were sown in the opening Premier League game of the season, when Aleksandar Mitrovic tormented Van Dijk while Fulham’s energy and physicality left Liverpool’s midfield baffled. Jurgen Klopp’s side scrapped their way to a 2-2 draw, and might have won, but a tone had been set, and not a good one.

They’ve been playing catch up ever since, their positive afternoons and evenings overshadowed twice over by poor ones. As it stands, they are 21 points behind where they were after 27 Premier League games last season, and a world away in terms of performances and standards.

The spotlight has shone all around Anfield as the Reds’ decline has become more apparent and more alarming. The likes of Fabinho, Joe Gomez, Joel Matip, Alexander-Arnold and Jordan Henderson have been heavily criticised, while even Klopp has found himself under fire. “You’re getting sacked in the morning,” sang the City fans on Saturday. It is not the first time that has been heard at a Liverpool game this season.

Van Dijk, of course, has been almost synonymous with the Reds’ rise to prominence, arguably the most important piece of the jigsaw as Klopp created a team which could conquer the world, but his travails this year have led plenty to question whether, at the relatively tender age of 31, his best days could be behind him.

Virgil van Dijk Netherlands 2023

That sounds absurd, but it is certainly a hot debate in the Netherlands, where the legendary figures of Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit have been throwing haymakers, and where Van Dijk’s status as captain of the Dutch national team has been queried.

“He thinks he is better than the rest,” was Gullit’s assessment after the recent defeat to France - clearly irony hasn’t reached that particular household - while Van Basten, an outspoken critic, suggested Van Dijk “creates chaos” and that he “makes noise, but doesn’t say anything.”

Even in England, the likes of Graeme Souness and Bryan Robson have criticised Van Dijk’s leadership skills. “I’m not sure if he is a leader,” said Souness recently. “He doesn’t speak! Have you ever seen him get angry? Get angry, please!”

Liverpool’s midfielders, full-backs and forwards would, one imagines, put Souness straight on that particular point. Van Dijk’s is one of the loudest and most respected voices in the Reds’ dressing room, and the idea that he is some kind of shrinking violet, scared of ruffling feathers or calling out errors is, to put it kindly, nothing short of ridiculous.

As Rio Ferdinand, covering the defeat against Man City for BT Sport, pointed out, nobody questioned Van Dijk’s leadership when Liverpool were flying, winning every significant club trophy in the space of four years. Nobody was slagging off his communication skills when he was placing second to Lionel Messi in the 2019 Ballon d’Or, or when he was in the PFA Team of the Year for three of the last four seasons (and the one year he wasn’t, it was because he missed most of the campaign because of injury).

Virgil van Dijk Liverpool 2022-23

But Liverpool’s decline this season has been so vast, so inexplicable, that narratives are being rewritten all over the shop. Alexander-Arnold, suddenly, is a liability who needs replacing, while Fabinho’s drop-off could apparently be predicted even when he was patrolling midfield with the assuredness and authority of one of the best in the world.

Like those two, and like Liverpool generally, Van Dijk has become a victim of his own high standards. This is his first poor season in years, and so it stands out more and attracts more scrutiny as a result. And after being showered with praise since his move to Merseyside, perhaps it was inevitable that his critics would jump in two-footed as soon as his form turned.

He is still, clearly, an outstanding centre-back. Nobody in the Premier League is better in the air, and few are stronger or more composed. He has still delivered some regal displays, even this season. Ask Erling Haaland or Marcus Rashford if they enjoyed playing against him.

But there is no doubt that that aura of invincibility, the one which made opposition strikers shrink and gave such reassurance to fans and team-mates, has been damaged. Mitrovic showed the way back in August, and even modest players such as Taiwo Awoniyi, Yoann Wissa and Dominic Solanke have been able to rattle the Dutchman, never mind elite ones such as Karim Benzema, Victor Osimhen or Gabriel Jesus.

Virgil van Dijk Liverpool

Of course no individual can, or should, carry the can for a team’s struggles. Liverpool’s success has been built on their collective strength, but nothing within the side is functioning the way it should at the moment, and each broken part - the fractured press, the leggy engine room, the iffy body language, the collective loss of confidence - has had a domino effect. The midfield is overworked because the forwards aren’t pressing like they used to, and the result is that the defence is being left exposed as teams play through with alarming ease and alarming regularity.

Van Dijk, it should be said, would be the first to admit that his own levels have not been up to scratch. He knows he must do better, and that his team needs him. Gullit and Van Basten may disagree, but few players are more conscientious, more switched on, than the 31-year-old when it comes to self-assessment.

The question really is whether this is a short-term dip, linked to the team’s issues and the sheer volume of football he has played since returning from that knee injury, or whether it is something more serious, something longer-term. 

If it is the latter, then Liverpool could be in bigger trouble than we ever imagined.