Virgil van Dijk is a wanted man. Liverpool tapped dat (up) and then got punished for it, and Chelsea are circling around him as well, although there’s a sense that he’s a bit of a fall-back option in case they fail to coax Leonardo Bonucci to their boudoir.
Why is he so wanted? Back in January, I made a video about him (-> here <-), but some people prefer the written word to a six-minute montage of moving pictures. This is largely a written version of the video – the conclusions are the same at least – but I expand on some things here and there.
Southampton – A cause for caution
Southampton have churned through a number of centre-backs who have all looked good during their time in the Premier League. By and large, this is because these centre-backs were good. Toby Alderweireld has gone on to great acclaim and achievement at Tottenham, Dejan Lovren’s wobbliness was overblown when he first joined Liverpool but has settled down (to the fullest extent he is probably likely to) under Klopp, and Jose Fonte deservedly propelled himself into a European Championship winning Portugal side.
However, Southampton’s defensive system is pretty protective of centre-backs. A lot of the defending is done in a deep, or middlingly deep, block – centre-backs have the whole field and all the action in front of them and not much space around them to be exploited. This style clearly covered some of Lovren’s deficiencies, and Liverpool in particular should be thinking hard about how Van Dijk might adjust from one style to the other.
There are various types of positioning (this is not an original thought, but for the moment I’m struggling to find the thing I want to reference on it). Positioning in terms of the two-dimensions of the surface of the pitch; positioning in terms of the relative spaces to other players on the pitch; and the way in which a person’s body is shaped (what their hips are doing, where their chest is pointing, etc – I generally differentiate this by calling it ‘body positioning’).
This kind of thing is generally evident when you’re trying to show a man down the line, away from the middle of the pitch. Legs need to be facing the way the striker is running; but body needs to be a bit side-on, facing the forward, to increase the size of the area that they need to skip around to cut inside.
Southampton’s system reduces the amount of times when a great sense of positioning – relative to other players – is needed, but Van Dijk’s positional sense is still clearly pretty good. However, something that’s really quite genuinely impressive is the way that Van Dijk is able to contort his body to position it so that he’s able to react to any eventuality.
24 minutes into the game against Manchester City at the Etihad, the ball pinging around the midfield, City managed to slide a pass through the whole Southampton side into Kevin de Bruyne. Van Dijk’s partner, Yoshida, had been cut out, and De Bruyne – receiving the ball thirty-five yards out in the left halfspace – had Aguero in the middle for support. City were 2-on-1 against Van Dijk. The laws of football say this should have been a ruthless demolishment of the opposition defence and a goal for City.
Van Dijk had to position himself in the passing lane between De Bruyne and Aguero – in itself not an easy task – while being close enough to De Bruyne to pressure him. His body had to be shaped to be able to speed up in case KdB tried to drive into the box for a shot, to be able to slow down to move into the passing lane between the two forwards, and even to be able to take a step back up the pitch to intercept an attempted pass. He managed to do all of this.
(To temper the hype slightly, if De Bruyne had made even a token attempt to drive into the box instead of slowing to look exclusively for the pass like he did, the result may have been different. It may have forced Van Dijk into more of a panic and a rush, and opened up a better opportunity for City. KdB screwed up, a little, but Van Dijk did very nicely)
With this quality of positioning and body positioning, you limit what opposition forwards are able to do. They know that if they speed up, you can follow; if they slow down, they’ll already be matching your pace; if they try a pass, you’ll be able to block it. You stunt them and their ability. This is a pretty good thing to be doing as a defender.
The best way I can describe my separation of the terms ‘positioning’ and ‘awareness’ is that you base your positioning on the general areas of the pitch you’re supposed to be in and opponents that you can see in front of you, while awareness is about the alterations you make to your movement based on what’s behind you.
Good awareness is harder than good positioning (because you don’t have eyes in the back of your head), and it’s why strikers pull backwards out of a defender’s line of sight and then dart forward and beat them at the near post. As a deep and organised block system, it’s one of the things that Southampton’s system covers for and can mask.
There are some occasions where Van Dijk is made to look like he doesn’t know what he’s doing by strikers nipping out from behind him. It doesn’t happen too frequently, but it puts a certain limit on the heights he might achieve. Those heights, even with that limit, are still pretty high though.
Just a note about footwork. It’s obviously important to have good feet as a footballer, but for central defenders it’s particularly important to be able to turn quickly and transition from, say, sidestepping to running ‘normally’ easily.
Ideally, you need to be bouncy and light enough that your feet aren’t leadenly welded to the floor, but not so bouncy that you’re straying into ‘jumping’ territory. Van Dijk, unsurprisingly, generally has nice feet.
While we’re on his feet, we may as well talk about passing. His touch is generally very good – assured and sensible. Defenders are increasingly good on the ball, but this doesn’t always extend to centre-backs who are solid defensively as well. With Van Dijk, he has the control and comfort of touch not only to bring the ball under his control, but to put it into an appropriate position to pass or move with it immediately afterwards as well. This is just general good practice, but given that teams are increasingly pressing high and onto central defenders, it also gives Van Dijk a better chance of being able to break the press than other defenders.
His ground passes are strong and accurate, although his long passing can be a mixed bag. His technical base is good enough that he might be able to play some nice long ones with some good runners to aim at, though.
This matter of runners is one of the difficult things about judging the passing ability of centre-backs. A lot of what makes a pass is what the receiver is doing, and when a defender is on the ball a lot of the field is cut off from the TV pictures. There weren’t, from what I watched, many line-splitting crucial passes in build-up, but how much of that is Van Dijk and how much is Southampton (beyond it being a bit of both of them) isn’t something I can say.
Can he deal with Stoke on a cold Wednesday night?
Yes. He’s six foot four and could knock you out cold with a chest-bump. He wins headers against Benteke and Lukaku. Not that I think anyone was doubting it, but Van Dijk can certainly handle himself physically.
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