Liverpool, Virgil van Dijk struggling hard out of the gate

Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk in action during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Liverpool FC at Old Trafford on August 22, 2022 in Manchester, England.

Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk in action during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Liverpool FC at Old Trafford on August 22, 2022 in Manchester, England.
Image: Getty Images

This isn’t my beautiful house.

That’s what most Liverpool supporters, including this one, are thinking this morning as Liverpool have come out of the blocks this season like the starter’s gun is just another overbearing nuisance on a bad hangover. Which in some ways, it is. Liverpool haven’t won in their first three outings, and while the first two draws could be waved away, with some amount of hidden desperation, as strange things happening, yesterday’s loss to blood rival Manchester United is no mere smudge on the scan. It’s an actual symptom of something.

For the second time away from home, Liverpool looked lethargic and almost dismissive of having to match their opponent’s energy. Now, all teams that get outplayed look lethargic. They feed into each other. It’s why you hear so often that losing teams are described as “flat” and winning teams “buoyant” or some such extension of either. But Liverpool have lacked verve, and there are reasons for that which we’ll get to.

But whenever Liverpool hit a bad patch, and there’s always a few matches in there that look decided iffy, the usual complaints get trotted out. The fullbacks get too far forward, the defense plays too high of a line, it’s too risky, Trent Alexander-Arnold isn’t a good defender, you can’t play like this, etc. It’s the same thing over and over.

None of this is a secret. This is how Liverpool play, and no one says anything when they’re putting up 90+ points in a season. Teams know what they’re facing, and they know how to counter it. It’s hardly covert. Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson are going to get what seems suicidally high up the field, and if you can get the ball and move it quickly enough you knock it into the spaces behind them where Liverpool only have their two centerbacks and whoever is occupying the No. 6 to cover. Everyone knows this.

The reason so few teams have been able to actually accomplish this enough to beat Liverpool that often is that they’ve had a cheat code in central defense. Virgil van Dijk made this system work. No one else can. Because his reading of the game and his anticipation were likely the best in the world, these sorts of attacks just never got off the ground before being snuffed out. Van Dijk’s ability to stop things before they happened often meant he rarely had to sprint during games, much less tackle.

The margins were always razor thin, playing as Liverpool do, because it only took one good pass to open them up like a cadaver. But they looked much safer and fooled everyone into thinking the margins weren’t as perilous because van Dijk was always on the right side of them. It’s what made him quite possibly the best defender in the world. The whole system’s foundation was him making it OK.

Notice how all those are in the past tense? Because so far this season, he has very much not been that.

Go back to the opening week. The second Fulham goal was the result of a pretty lazy and out-of-sorts patch of defending from van Dijk on Alex Mitrovic. This is the kind of run against van Dijk that most strikers wouldn’t even try. Perhaps it was the bubbling excitement of opening day, perhaps Mitrovic’s giant shoulder-bound chip to prove he belongs in the Premier League, perhaps just feeling optimistic on such a sunny day, but Mitrovic found his “Fuck it it’s free cake!” gear and got rewarded in a way that forwards just never have against van Dijk.

Head to the following week. It’s awfully harsh on van Dijk, because Wilfried Zaha is definitely on one these days. But watch closely:

We’re accustomed to seeing van Dijk, even in this pretty desperate situation, at least force Zaha to his left foot (though as Villa learned this weekend, that’s hardly a safe space either) and keep him outside. The play breaks down way before van Dijk has to intervene, like when Fabinho gets his shorts sent into orbit by Eberechi Eze, opening up tons of time for the latter to thread this through to Zaha. But someone bursts upon Liverpool’s defense once or twice every game. Van Dijk puts out those fires. He never really gets there against Zaha, who can line this up with his preferred right foot.

Yesterday was a complete disaster. No, van Dijk had no help from a midfield that was essentially in need of tennis balls being put on their cleats such was their mobility, but never has the Dutchman looked so flat-footed. Watch this first goal:

After Milner slides by as if he’s finally been put on the ice float he looks like he’s due to arrive on shortly, van Dijk just… stands there? He doesn’t close down Jadon Sancho, who should never have the time to readjust his body to get back onto his right foot and pass into the open half of the net. He may have scored anyway, but surely this angle must be closed down.

Again, the second goal is harsh to blame van Dijk, but such has been his standard, and such is Liverpool’s dependency on that standard, you can’t leave him be totally. Yes, Jordan Henderson is a little out of position, and his touch sucks shit, but van Dijk gets beaten to the ball by Antony Martial, and van Dijk almost never gets beaten to a spot like this. Which gives Martial all the time in the world to send Marcus Rashford through. Van Dijk either didn’t see Martial float into the center circle, or was too far off of him, or didn’t anticipate Henderson’s touch.

These are the kinds of margin-calls that van Dijk has always been on the right side of, and he has to be, and his greatness is that he almost always was. When he’s on a streak like this…well, this is what Liverpool look like.

There are obviously other problems. The injury list is satanic, and almost all in midfield. Jordan Henderson is not a #6 and never really has been, and the call to leave Fabinho out of the starting lineup last night was basically boneheaded, no matter how his season has started. The team’s attack has been constructed to be around Darwin Nunez, a genuine #9, and he’s played barely two halves so far. They’re caught in between in attacking tactics. Van Dijk has played with three different partners in central defense.

But the schedule only gets more overbearing from here, and no one’s waiting around. And if Liverpool fans really want to panic, they may cast an eye to Jurgen Klopp’s previous arc at Dortmund. Klopp took two warm up seasons there before producing four top-tier seasons, including two Bundesliga titles and a Champions League final appearance. But in his seventh season at the Westfalenstadion, it all fell apart, Dortmund finished seventh, and he left the club after the season. There were some other factors at work. Robert Lewandowski high-tailed it for Munich. So did Mario Goetze, and Nuri Sahin left as well. This is Klopp’s eighth on Merseyside.

Liverpool are clearly still adjusting to life without Sadio Mane, who boosted the midfield even as a striker last season by dropping deep and helping out with the creation part of the attack before getting on the end of a lot of them. Just like Roberto Firmino used to but doesn’t quite look capable of anymore. But at Dortmund, Klopp created one great team and couldn’t sustain it past their initial cycle. A lot of the players that spearheaded those great Dortmund teams were still there in 2014-2015, except they were either getting hurt or just weren’t the same like Schmeltzer or Piszczek or Hummels. It could just be that playing Klopp’s system for a while takes its toll. Henderson, Fabinho, Matip, van Dijk, Robertson, Alexander-Arnold, Salah, and Firmino have been around for the entire run. They all are either hurt or look off it. And that’s after a 63-game season last time. It’s too early to say that’s what’s happening. Three games can be just a brief malaise. But Liverpool fans are lying to you if that thought is not slowly chomping away at the deep recesses of their brains. 

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