Football News

Virgil van Dijk ‘aura’ proves Liverpool man is still the best centre-back in the Premier League

By CJ Smith

Published: 18:13, 8 June 2024

Arsenal defender William Saliba believes he is beginning to exert a defensive influence comparable to that of ‘the boss’ Virgil van Dijk. 

The Gunners finished the 2023/24 season with the best defensive record in the Premier League, conceding just 29 goals and keeping 18 clean sheets, as they finished just two points behind four-in-a-row champions Manchester City.

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First among Arsenal players for possessions won in the defensive third and in the top three in a number of other key metrics including aerial duels won, interceptions and clearances, Saliba was the cornerstone of Mikel Arteta’s backline even more than in previous years.

Even despite his struggles to get a consistent look-in at international level with France, Saliba is rated among the best defenders in the Premier League right now and is a leader within the Arsenal squad even though he doesn’t don the captain’s armband.

However, for all of his acclaim, Saliba is not yet the benchmark when it comes to elite centre-backs. That title remains in the hands of Liverpool captain Van Dijk, who has led the Reds to five major honours since joining the club in 2018 and came second in the 2019 Ballon d’Or — the highest placing of any defender in the award since Fabio Cannavaro won it in 2006, while he only finished behind Lionel Messi by the number of points lost voting for the Argentine himself.

Despite making 36 appearances and playing over 3,000 minutes, Van Dijk was dribbled past just twice in the Premier League last season and finished first among Liverpool players for interceptions, clearances, aerial duels won and possessions won in the defensive third.

Using the Squawka Comparison Matrix, you can see that even Saliba cannot compete with Van Dijk on a statistical level.

That said, Saliba himself concedes he is only just ‘starting to feel the same way’ as Van Dijk.

“In defence at Arsenal, I’m one of the leaders,” Saliba told L’Equipe, adding: “Van Dijk has aura. He’s the boss. He commands everything. You can feel he’s scaring strikers away. And I’m starting to feel the same way.”

‘Aura’ is an apt way to describe Van Dijk’s presence at the heart of the Liverpool backline.

Bournemouth forward Antoine Semenyo used the exact same word when explaining recently why the Dutchman is the hardest defender he’s ever faced.

“Hardest defender I’d say Virgil van Dijk,” Semenyo said on the Earn Your Stripes TikTok channel. “That year that I signed we beat them 2-0 [1-0] and I came on in that game. I remember running in behind and all I can hear is that man’s footsteps. Dum, dum dum, chasing me.

“All I’m thinking is ‘this guy’s fast! He’s six foot four, six foot five and he is fast! Like, he’s got presence, you can hear him coming.

“I’m trying to focus and get my shot across and he puts me off completely. His aura just puts me off. I dragged the ball wide and I’m thinking ‘ah man.’ But it’s tough.”

Van Dijk has just one more year to run on his contract at Anfield but for the time being, he remains the king of the Premier League centre-backs, with the ‘aura’ to match.