There must have been a feeling of deja vu around Anfield as Moussa Sissoko raced clear into the Liverpool half with just a few minutes remaining on the clock.
With Heung-min Son supporting him, it looked likely Spurs would take the lead and with it put a severe dent in the home team’s title challenge.
It was a scenario that had played out five years prior when Jose Mourinho brought his Chelsea side to Anfield. The Reds needed to avoid defeat on this occasion to stand a chance of lifting the elusive Premier League trophy.
With the scoreline reading 1-0 heading into stoppage time there was a feeling that Liverpool needed just one chance to snatch the equaliser.
As they pushed forward they exposed themselves defensively. With just seconds left on the clock, Chelsea sprung a counter and exploited the acres of space afforded to them.
Fernando Torres carried the ball into the penalty area before rolling the ball to Willian who tapped home.
However, not everything was identical against Spurs, and history wasn’t about to repeat itself. A draw wouldn’t have been the end of the world but a win kept the pressure on Manchester City.
Thanks to Virgil van Dijk’s textbook defending of a 1 vs 2, that Sissoko shot didn’t even register as a ‘big chance’ according to Opta. Various xG models gave it just a 12-14% chance of finding the net. pic.twitter.com/GsgnLf6uWj
— James Nalton (@JDNalton) April 1, 2019
Jurgen Klopp had previously been accused of being too safe in these sorts of matches this season but here he made positive changes. A high-risk move but the reward was three points and a place at the summit of the Premier League table with just six games left to play.
Unlike Chelsea, Spurs didn’t have a free run at goal. One man was in their way.
Unfortunately for them it just so happened to be Virgil van Dijk.
The Dutchman didn’t overcommit and he backed the lesser of the two evils by forcing Sissoko to take it himself. He blocked off a passing angle to Son in the end, he made it look like a straightforward bit of defending but it was far from that and it kept Liverpool in the game.
Their title bid didn’t hinge on Van Dijk choosing the right option in that split second. But had he got it wrong, there’s a very high chance Liverpool’s ten-match unbeaten run in the Premier League would’ve come to an end.
Speaking to Sky Sports after the match, Mauricio Pochettino praised the Liverpool No.4: “That shows why Liverpool paid more than £70m for Van Dijk.”
The Reds broke the world record to land the former Southampton man in January 2018 when they parted with £75million to sign him. At the time, many pundits claimed Liverpool had overpaid.
Fast forward 15 months and it now looks to be a bargain.
The Reds are a different beast altogether with him in their team. The new defensive resilience isn’t all down to him but he’s the poster boy. With 32 games of the 2018/19 season played, Liverpool have conceded just 19 goals at a rate of 0.59 per 90 minutes.
They’ve conceded more than one goal in a single match on just three occasions this term in the English top flight and this despite the many injuries to Van Dijk’s centre-back partners.
While some players struggle when there’s no continuity, the Dutch defender seems to drag players beside him up a level or two. It’s no coincidence that Joe Gomez, Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip all look like different players when the Liverpool No.4 is to their left.
For most of the match against Spurs, Harry Kane avoided Van Dijk like the plague but when the England striker didn’t so happen to drift into the Dutchman’s area, he was bullied.
The Liverpool centre-back finished the game having won 100 per cent of his aerial duels. He wasn’t once dribbled past and he managed to finish the match with an impressive 88 per cent pass success rate.
Kane, who had scored six goals in seven matches for Spurs and England heading into this match, was limited to just two shots. One, on his left foot, was parried away by Alisson while the other, on his favoured right foot, was blocked by Van Dijk just as it appeared as though he was free in the area.
The defensive colossus gobbled up the ground and effortlessly prevented Kane’s shot from reaching the Liverpool goal. It was one of those rare occasions in which Van Dijk is forced to use his acceleration. It’s easy to forget just how quick he is due to the fact he plays the game at a canter.
However, it’s in those moments, when you see him glide over the ground, that you realise the world’s best defender is playing in the Premier League. And he’s wearing the red of Liverpool.
He’s got everything. He’s dominant in the air. Very few can get clear of him and his positional intelligence is perhaps unrivalled on a football pitch. If a manager could put together the perfect centre-back it would be Van Dijk.
* odds subject to change
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by Tom Bodell