Football Features

Nottingham Forest have more reason to fear Van Dijk as Liverpool continue to weather injury crisis

By Harry Edwards

Published: 14:13, 1 March 2024

Virgil van Dijk is back to his best.

A few years ago, Van Dijk was considered one of the best players in the world, let alone the best centre-back. In 2019, the Liverpool and Netherlands defender finished second in the Ballon d’Or, only beaten by Lionel Messi by just seven points (686-679). He also finished second to Messi in The Best FIFA Men’s Player awards, losing by eight points (46-38).

But in October 2020 Van Dijk suffered an ACL injury that kept him out for the remainder of the season, and looked to have potentially ended his time at the top. Once he returned, Van Dijk didn’t look the same player. It felt as though he had more mistakes in his game, being easier to beat and in the 2022/23 campaign he was dribbled past 11 times — the most for him in a single season since 2016/17.


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However, this season, Van Dijk has been on a completely new level. The Dutchman has been a rock at the back for Liverpool as they chase Premier League glory, playing 24 of their 26 games this season — missing two through suspension. He’s also played twice in the FA Cup and four times in the EFL Cup, scoring an 118th-minute winner against Chelsea in the EFL Cup final.

The win came despite Liverpool having a number of injury problems, including the absence of Mohamed Salah, Darwin Nunez and Dominic Szoboszlai.

Joe Gomez didn’t start the EFL Cup final, but came off the bench in the 28th minute, to replace Ryan Gravenberch — the latest injury worry for Liverpool. Gomez didn’t play in midfield, however, he went to right-back with Conor Bradley moving further up the pitch.

Gomez has been a good utility man for Liverpool of late, filling in really well when injuries have struck. It’s a good run of form for a player that has had his own injury problems through his career. And it hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“He did outstanding, big credit to him for him to perform at left-back, right-back, centre-half, six and does it on the high level,” Van Dijk said, after Klopp had hailed Gomez for his recent performances.

“I’m just pleased for him and knowing what we have been through together a couple of years ago. And for him to be playing on that level is something he should get maybe more credit for.

“But he is a very close friend of mine and he is a very good player and has been outstanding. Maybe one of the players of the season this year.”

At the other end of the pitch, Nottingham Forest will be shaking in their boots as they prepare to face Liverpool this weekend. The (Midlands) Reds have conceded the most goals from set pieces in the Premier League this season with 16.

Both of Van Dijk’s two Premier League goals this season have come from set pieces — not to mention his EFL Cup final winner. He has scored one goal with his head, from 16 headed shots in total, six of which have hit the target. Don’t put it past him netting again this weekend.

Can anyone beat Van Dijk? The best Comparison Matrix reaction this week

There’s no denying that Van Dijk is once again up there among the best centre-backs in the world, if not the best.

 

Earlier this week the Squawka social team tasked followers with finding a centre-back in Europe who could ‘beat’ Van Dijk in a Comparison Matrix head-to-head.

The metric chosen, of course, are just a arbitrary in measuring defensive performance. But it was interesting to see the only one who managed to out-produce Van Dijk in more categories was a certain 37-year-old playing in La Liga.

The first comparison request to come through was Antonio Rudiger, who has been the main centre-back for Real Madrid this season. It’s fair to say this was a one-sided contest, with Virgil van Dijk emerging perfect.

Then came Ronald Araujo, another La Liga centre-back. The Uruguayan has had to deal with a few injury issues this season, but when fit is considered among the top centre-backs in Europe. He has been linked with a move away from Barcelona this summer, with the club reportedly having to shift a lot of big names on to meet salary cap requirements.

One user pointed out that it was an unfair matchup, as Van Dijk had significantly more minutes than Araujo. But all of our Comparison Matrix head-to-heads were done on per 90 minutes, making for a fairer comparison.

In the Premier League, some of Van Dijk’s biggest rivals for the centre-back crown are the Arsenal duo of William Saliba and Gabriel. As a partnership, Saliba and Gabriel have given Arsenal the best defence in the Premier League, conceding just 23 goals in 26 games — two fewer than Liverpool.

They may be successors to his crown, but for now, this is Van Dijk’s kingdom.

John Terry was another centre-back to fall, this time one of the best in Premier League history. A lot of conversation has been made as to where Van Dijk sits in that list. Some place him at the top, while others still put the likes of Terry and Nemanja Vidic above the Dutchman. But in Terry’s 2014/15 season, when he played every minute as Chelsea won the Premier League title, he still couldn’t match Van Dijk.

So, who could beat Van Dijk? One man who does come out favourably against Van Dijk is none other than Sergio Ramos. And we’re not just talking about prime Sergio Ramos. We’re talking about 2023/24 Sergio Ramos.

Ramos is back in Spain with Sevilla and although the club are struggling, he’s managed well with his time on the pitch. Playing just under 1,500 minutes in La Liga, Ramos edges Van Dijk for recoveries, successful long passes, long pass accuracy, tackles, ground duels won, clearances and blocks per 90 minutes. Of course, Ramos is the busier centre-back, given how under the cosh Sevilla have been. But it’s still an impressive feat.

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