When Liverpool signed Virgil van Dijk from Southampton two years ago, it was met with ridicule in some quarters. Having already pinched five other players from the south coast club, the joke was that Liverpool should just set up a standing order with Southampton to speed up the process of acquiring their players.
Not all of those signings had been successful, either. Sadio Mané was the only unqualified success. Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren may have been useful squad options – but for a combined outlay of over $100 million, they were probably expecting more from their five from Southampton.
The fee for van Dijk was an eye-watering $100 million. That was over five times what Southampton paid to Scottish outfit Celtic for the Dutch defender just two-and-a-half years prior. Van Dijk was a respected, proven Premier League player but with such a high fee came very high expectations and skepticism he could meet them.
Not even van Dijk’s biggest admirers could have predicted how successful they’d be with him marshaling Liverpool’s back four. A debut goal against cross-town rivals Everton was a perfect start to a thus-far glittering career with the Reds.
Liverpool’s defensive record has been miserable since he arrived, and he has picked up personal accolades too – a Premier League Player of the Year award last season. Only Lionel Messi finished ahead of him in votes for the Ballon d’Or trophy awarded to the world’s best player over the last year.
Van Dijk showed his credentials with a tremendous performance in Liverpool’s 2-0 victory over Manchester United at Anfield. Early in the first half, he towered over everyone to nod Trent Alexander-Arnold’s out-swinging corner kick into the back of the net to give Liverpool the lead.
He also played a big part in a controversially disallowed goal. He challenged Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea for an aerial ball and was whistled for a foul after Roberto Firmino struck the loose ball into the back of the net. Van Dijk did not go in with his arm, and he will feel aggrieved that Liverpool’s goal was chalked off.
However, it was not just his attacking contribution that was exceptional against Manchester United, Liverpool’s biggest rivals. Anthony Martial started up front against van Dijk – his power and pace makes him a tricky player to deal with, as his eight Premier League goals demonstrate. Van Dijk didn’t give him a sniff at making it nine.
It wasn’t just a one-man effort from Liverpool. Indeed, what makes them so impressive is how Jürgen Klopp’s system makes them greater than the sum of their parts. All their players were impressive in how they relentlessly pursued the ball in packs – it was surprising that they only had 54 percent possession according to the official stats.
The midfield three of Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was particularly impressive. They formed a barrier to protect the defense from onrushing United players and were good at advancing the ball quickly to the Liverpool attacking triumvirate once they won it.
In injury time, Manchester United manager Ole Solskjaer bizarrely stopped de Gea going up for a late attacking corner. His opposite number Alisson claimed it before launching a drop kick towards Mo Salah. The fact that de Gea was back in goal didn’t matter – Salah calmly finished past him to give Liverpool a deserved 2-0 win.
The most impressive part of this goal was Alisson’s celebration. Having set Salah up with a perfectly weighted kick from his hands, he sprinted the entire length of the pitch to be the first to congratulate Salah after he scored.
The last Liverpool team to win the league, 30 years ago, had just four players born outside of Britain and Ireland. This team features just one regular starting player (Alexander-Arnold) from the city of Liverpool and finished the game against Manchester United with as many players from Brazil as from England.
This team has drawn from a much more eclectic background than that of thirty years ago, but it would mean no less to the people of Liverpool if they could deliver the title back to Merseyside. This is still a club deeply rooted in its local community – unless you’re an Everton supporter.