There was more than an element of freakishness to Liverpool’s 7-2 defeat to Aston Villa before the international break. Indeed, everything that could have gone wrong for Jurgen Klopp’s side did go wrong and Virgil van Dijk found himself at the centre of it all. Yet the Dutchman’s calamitous performance wasn’t completely out of the blue.
Over the last two to three years, there has been no better central defender in the European game than Van Dijk. The arrival of the Dutchman from Southampton in January 2018 proved to be a turning point in Liverpool’s recent history, giving the Reds the sort of presence they had lacked at the back for a generation.
Virgil van Dijk hasn’t been his usual self over the first few weeks of the new season, though. There were hints of this on opening weekend, when Leeds United put three goals past the defending Premier League champions on their own patch but what happened against Aston Villa raised more pressing questions of the Dutchman’s form.
The 29-year-old is so key to Liverpool’s fortunes that any dip in form warrants some form of investigation. Klopp has made progress in adding greater depth to his squad over the last few transfer windows but Van Dijk is still the only player the Anfield club can’t do without. They depend on him.
Circumstances have been challenging early on this season, with Premier League players not given much of an off-season break. The condensed nature of the 2020/21 campaign means players are being asked to play two, sometimes even three, times a week. Van Dijk has certainly lacked sharpness of late. That could be down to mental fatigue, if not physical.
More concerning for Liverpool, however, is the prospect that Virgil van Dijk has lost his focus. Having had a Premier League and Champions League winners’ medal draped around his neck in the last 18 months, it would be somewhat understandable if the Dutchman is currently struggling to find motivation.
This was the case for Van Dijk towards the end of his time at Celtic. The Dutchman generally strolled Scottish football, but allowed mistakes and lapses in concentration to creep into his game as he slipped into his comfort zone. Without a challenge and a new target to shoot for, Van Dijk struggled for his best form. His worst night as a Celtic player came in a Europa League defeat to Inter which saw the defender sent off after just 36 minutes.
Such blunders didn’t afflict Van Dijk at Southampton but the final six months of his spell on the south coast were far from his best. Of course, Van Dijk spent much of this time attempting to force through a move to Liverpool in the lead up to January having been denied a transfer in the summer window but a lack of focus did become an issue for the Saints.
If there is a manager who can re-energise Van Dijk, it’s Klopp. The German’s best quality is in the way he gets players fighting for him, with Liverpool still heavily tipped to keep their Premier League crown despite what unfolded at Villa Park. The Reds aren’t the only ones to have suffered peculiar inconsistencies in their performances this season. This is not the time for overreaction.
The international break has given Liverpool the opportunity reset and refocus, both as a team and as individuals. Virgil van Dijk is too good, too accomplished, not to find his best form again, but Klopp must consider the conditions that have allowed their most important player to be knocked from his stride so he can stop it from happening again.
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