It's easy to see Virgil Van Dijk's impact on Liverpool's defense, and the Dutchman's presence is more vital to the club's domestic and European success this season than any of its star attacking talents.

By 90Min
August 21, 2018

Ever since the heyday of Jamie Carragher, Liverpool's defense has been missing a beating heart. That is, a defender who is not only rock solid in his own right, but also has a positive, calming influence on those around him.

It speaks volumes that Carragher now believes that Liverpool has found his successor in Virgil van Dijk. The Dutchman became the world's most expensive defender when he signed from Southampton in January for £75 million, but Carragher believes that fee is already looking like good value.

Not wanting to blow his own trumpet, Carragher instead compared Van Dijk to another Liverpool legend, Alan Hansen. This is exactly the sort of comment that will elicit ridicule from rival fans. Two games into the new season, and Van Dijk is already being compared with a center back who won 8 First Division titles and 3 European Cups.

Van Dijk will never replicate those numbers in the modern era. But for a Liverpool side starved of success in recent years, winning just one of those trophies could be worthy of legendary status. In terms of what Van Dijk could become, and how important he could be, Carragher may have a point.

His arrival in January coincided with a noticeable improvement in Liverpool's defensive fortunes. There were still moments of worrying complacency - the 3-2 FA Cup defeat to West Brom, the late penalty against Tottenham, the two Champions League legs against Roma - but in general, Liverpool had tightened up significantly.

Nobody was surprised to see Van Dijk dominating in the center of defense, but the real revelation was Dejan Lovren. The previously maligned Croatian defender suddenly looked composed and confident, brilliantly withstanding Manchester City in March's Champions League quarterfinal win.

The same is true of Joe Gomez in the early stages of this season. His performance on Monday against Crystal Palace was one of his best in a Liverpool shirt. Up against the pace of Wilfried Zaha and the presence of Christian Benteke, he came out on top with flying colors.

Neither Lovren nor Gomez has become a colossus overnight. But by playing alongside such a good defender, they have become better themselves. Reassured that Van Dijk has any situation under control, they are free to focus on their own performance without worrying about covering for their teammate's errors.

Van Dijk's statistics against Palace back that up. He came out on top in nine aerial duels, most of which were contested against the battering ram of Benteke. A 92.4% pass accuracy is also impressive, but the number of those which were successful long passes is even more so. Van Dijk doesn't just break up attacks, he starts them as well.

He contested just two tackles vs. Palace, winning them both. In the hypothetical perfect defensive display, a defender would never have to make a tackle at all, because their positioning would always be correct. Paolo Maldini, possibly the closest to perfection a defender has ever been, averaged just 0.56 tackles per game throughout his career.

Gomez was just as good, winning three tackles including a crucial intervention as Zaha raced towards goal in the first half. Before this season, Gomez had never started a Premier League game at center back, but already he might be giving Jurgen Klopp something to think about when Lovren and Joel Matip return from injury.

What cannot be measured in statistics is Van Dijk's leadership. From his very first game at Liverpool, he was shouting instructions and encouragement at his teammates. This is also something that has been missing since Carragher's day, and it will provide a great environment for Liverpool's other defenders to keep improving.

The question is: can Liverpool challenge for the title with a central defensive unit that is still in development? Two clean sheets represents a great start, but there will be tougher tests to come, and whoever becomes the mainstay alongside Van Dijk will have to perform on a consistent basis.

If Klopp does choose to persist with Gomez, he has to accept that the youngster will make mistakes during the season. Great defender alongside him or not, he's still only 21. Trent Alexander-Arnold was outstanding last season, but there were still a couple of players–Zaha, Marcus Rashford to be specific–who gave him the runaround.

Klopp may choose to stick with experience and reinstate Lovren or Matip, but even they are not good enough to go an entire season without a couple of chastening performances. Once, you might have gotten away with that, but in a title battle with the relentless machine of Manchester City the margin for error is tiny.

That is why Van Dijk will be the most important player if Liverpool is to challenge for major honors this season. Last season it was Mohamed Salah, but his two fellow forwards are very capable of scoring goals, and there is now better cover in the form of Xherdan Shaqiri and a fit–for now–Daniel Sturridge.

Van Dijk has no equal in the defense. If Carragher is to be believed, he has no equal in the whole Premier League. One injury to him, and Liverpool are back in the firing line. In the absence of a leader, the old problems could easily creep back in.

No trophy worth winning was ever won without a bit of good fortune. If Van Dijk can stay fit for the whole season, keep putting in performances like the one against Palace and keep inspiring his teammates to do the same, then perhaps the realms of Anfield folklore aren't too far away after all.

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