There is little doubting the impact that Virgil van Dijk has had upon Liverpool in their push towards the Premier League title. This article will hopefully go some way to uncovering the performance trends throughout the season, as well as shining some light on who could be the Robin to his Batman as his centre-back partner. In order to do so, we will be looking at his aerial performance and passing performance; both areas he has excelled in. The two categories will focus on the following metrics: aerial duels, forward passing, passes to the final third.
But can he defend?
One area that Van Dijk has brought an undeniable improvement to this Liverpool side is his commanding presence at the heart of the defence. A look at his percentage completions in both defensive duels and aerial duels shows him to be one of the most dominant centre-backs in the league and the most dominant at Liverpool.
So let’s take a closer look at the breakdown of how Van Dijk’s aerial performance has been impacted by his centre-back partner, are there any clear trends?
On the face of it, there appears to be a conscious effort from Liverpool’s management staff to pair Van Dijk with Matip when Liverpool are likely to face a high number of aerial duels. This decision should not come as a surprise as Matip, 6”5, ranks third in aerial duel success percentage for Premier League centre-backs (>1000 mins). Matip and Van Dijk have almost identical performances in this metric with Matip recording 66% and Van Dijk 65% (Premier League performances). However, Van Dijk is the busier of the pair registering 1.7 aerial duels p90 more than his Cameroonian counterpart.
As the eye flashes to the right-hand side of the graph to look at performances where Van Dijk has registered 100% aerial duels completion, the numbers show this has happened 10 times this season. This includes the away fixture to Bayern Munich at the Allianz, albeit only facing two aerial duels all night. It is evident that he has achieved a higher percentage success rate against more stereotypically physical sides than the ball playing sides of Europe. For example, he recorded above average success rate against Cardiff and Burnley. In contrast, he registered below average performances for aerial duel success against the likes of PSG, Napoli and Manchester City, all of which fall a minimum of 15% below his average performance.
Alright, he can defend, but can he play out from the back?
Let’s take a look at how Van Dijk progresses the ball forwards in relation to his teammates, is he tasked with playing the progressive passes to beat the first line of opposition defence?
It can be seen that Van Dijk ranks as the best performer in the forward pass accuracy percentage metric amongst his clubmates, albeit by a small percentage. It is worth noting that Lovren appears to play forward most regularly, could this pairing provide Liverpool with the partnership most conducive to building play from the back? A look at a more detailed breakdown can go some way to answering this question.
Looking to the top right quadrant it appears that there is no definite correlation between the partner Van Dijk has and his forward passing performance as all four partners feature in this area of the graph. However, once we dig deeper it is possible to see that 10 of Van Dijk’s 15 appearances alongside Matip see him register above average forward pass accuracy. This can be viewed in contrast with Lovren who ranks above average in half of the games in which they are partnered, and four of 11 next to Gomez. So considering this finding does Matip help Van Dijk’s forward passing performance?
One way to explain this could be the fact that Matip ranks first in the league for centre-backs in progressive dribbles (3.02 p90). This ability to carry the ball to beat the first line of defence poses a big question for how teams press Liverpool. Do they opt for one up top and the possibility of Matip stepping out with the ball and Van Dijk free to pass into midfield, or press with two and surrender numerical advantage in midfield?
Another aspect of Van Dijk’s passing that highlights a difference in style between him and his teammates is long passing distance. From the table below it is visible that Van Dijk has the greatest long pass distance of his teammates. It is also noteworthy how contrasting the long passing performance of Matip and Van Dijk has been this season and shows why there is an emphasis on Van Dijk to play the longer passes when played together.
We can couple this information with the eye test and derive that Van Dijk has brought an ability to play raking passes which allow Liverpool to switch play effectively. The most impressive aspect of Van Dijk’s ability to do this is the trajectory of the pass in order to keep the pass flat. This allows for the tempo to be maintained in the attack and stops the opposition from shuffling into position and re-setting their defensive shape.
An example of Liverpool looking to utilise this skill can be seen in their 3-2 victory against PSG. A look at Van Dijk’s pass map against the French champions shows a clear trend to switch the play to the right wing, often to the advance full-back as the forward trio play narrow.
Okay, so he can play short but can he go long?
So we’ve covered how Van Dijk has performed in terms of progressing play forwards, now let’s break it down further to take a look into how he progresses the ball into the final third.
An essential trait for any modern day centre-back is the ability to feed the front men with ammunition, in this case, Salah, Mane and Firmino. Examples of how Van Dijk has done this can be seen through his ability to play long balls into the final third – Mane vs Bayern & Salah vs Chelsea both of which resulted in goals. Despite the pass against Bayern being only one of two that Van Dijk played into the final third, it goes to show how crucially important it can be to have a player capable of such a skill.
So he can pass, but do his passes get the ball in dangerous areas?
Taking a closer look at Van Dijk’s numbers throughout the season, we can see he registers an average of over eight passes at a success rate of 71% to the final third. A look towards the top right quadrant shows Van Dijk has been paired with Matip on the two occasions he has registered over 20 passes.
It is noteworthy that three fixtures against Champions League opposition fall into the top right quadrant, showing that Van Dijk is capable of high volume accurate passing to the final third when playing at the highest level. His relationship with Matip highlights three performances where he has achieved 100% completion on passes to the final third alongside the Cameroonian.
It is also interesting to note that Van Dijk struggled to progress the ball into the final third against Manchester United in the 3-1 win, but achieved 100% completion in a fairly turgid 0-0 draw. This coupled with a poor performance against Everton goes some way to suggest that there may be some truth in the cliche that they are “one-off” games.
Finally, let’s take a look at the pass map from Van Dijk’s most statistically impressive performance this season in terms of passes to the final third versus Crystal Palace.
We can see that the majority of passes come from within the opposition half as he takes up a position on the left side of the defence. His advanced passing position comes as a result of Palace dropping deep and surrendering possession as they registered 33% possession. There is the common theme of short diagonal passes to the left wing as Liverpool look to make the pitch wide and set up attacking rotations. As well as this, there is a clear trend in a small number of long balls to the right wing. These are played to switch the angle of attack to disrupt the opposition backline and open channels between defenders as they shuffle across, as well as creating 1v1 situations.
Alright, he’s pretty good, isn’t he? But who’s he best next to?
In conclusion, the impact that Van Dijk has on this Liverpool side is evident from both a defensive and passing performance point of view. Not only is he the most dominant defender within the current Liverpool set up, but also has on the ball qualities. The latter of which includes his ability to switch play effectively in order to create 1v1 situations, as well as the ability to play forwards frequently and with high efficiency.
This deep dive into the data aimed to identify who could be the perfect foil to Van Dijk in their run-in to the title and Champions League and one name continued to appear next to Van Dijk in his best performances: Joël Matip. The 27-year-old is dominant in the air, possessing a near identical aerial duel success rate to the Dutchman. In addition to this, he offers a different dimension to Liverpool’s play, the ability to step out with the ball from the defence and beat the first line of opposition defence. These two qualities mean Liverpool can field a dominant pairing with the ability to pass and dribble out from the back, qualities any team challenging for titles want from their centre-backs.
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