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Ken Early: Van Dijk gives his worst performance of the season but remains a key part of Liverpool’s future

Central defender had a poor outing at the Emirates and Reds fans must hope his head has not been scrambled by the uncertainty clouding Liverpool’s future

Two days after Jurgen Klopp had announced he would be leaving Liverpool, Virgil van Dijk was asked whether he saw himself staying at the club after the Klopp era was over.

“That’s a big question,” he began. “Well . . . I don’t know . . .”

Such a non-committal response naturally produced a wave of speculation about whether Van Dijk, whose contract expires in 2025, was set to follow Klopp out the door at the end of the season. At his press conference last Tuesday, Klopp did his best to dismiss a series of questions about whether his team was about to fall apart.

“Nobody has to worry. You can’t wait with these type of questions,” he complained. “Virg didn’t go out and say ‘by the way I want to say . . .’ It’s always about the questions. A week ago when no one knew about my decision and there were 18 months on the contracts, nobody asked. So give us a break, give the boys a break.”


A good try by Klopp – but he was fooling nobody. Of course the news of his departure creates questions that were not there before. Van Dijk was only admitting as much. The centre-back did another interview later in the week in which he insisted that his comments had “been taken completely out of context”. No, they hadn’t. It sounded as though Van Dijk was just dismayed by the reaction and wishing he hadn’t been quite so open.

He needs to adjust to the post-Klopp world Liverpool are already living in. Sure, this season could potentially last another 27 matches – but already the news has transformed everyone’s thinking about the future, and as Van Dijk learned this week, it also changes the way people interpret the present.

For example, had Van Dijk produced his worst performance of the season two weeks ago at Bournemouth, rather than saving it for yesterday at Arsenal, nobody would have been speculating that it was because his head has been scrambled by the uncertainty clouding Liverpool’s future.

In reality, Van Dijk’s errors – he was at fault to some degree on all three Arsenal goals – were each forced by good Arsenal play.

Arsenal’s first goal was a success for Mikel Arteta’s striker-less game plan. The key to it was confusing Liverpool’s centre-backs into moving in opposite directions.

As Oleksandr Zinchenko passed infield to Martin Ødegaard, Ibrahima Konate dropped deep to cover Gabriel Martinelli, who had scorched him down the left in a dangerous move a couple of minutes earlier. At the same moment Van Dijk, who had nobody to mark, moved forward to challenge Ødegaard in midfield – without getting close enough to put in an actual challenge. A huge gap opened up through the middle, Ødegaard played Havertz through and Bukayo Saka, following up the play, was in position to finish the move after Havertz’s shot was blocked.

If Van Dijk could have shared responsibility for that one with his midfield – where were they? – there was nobody else to blame for Arsenal’s second and ultimately decisive goal.

Van Dijk could probably have headed the long ball lofted forward by Gabriel Magalhães, but the awkward height and angle the ball was coming at persuaded him that the safer option was to leave it for Alisson. What he had not reckoned with was Martinelli’s persistence in the chase. The Arsenal winger shouldered Van Dijk at the critical moment, causing him to lurch into Alisson’s path, and their collision led to Alisson missing the clearance, leaving Martinelli with an open goal.

By the time of the third goal Liverpool were down to 10 men after Konate’s red card. Leandro Trossard escaped Harvey Elliott, who was never going to have the pace to come back at him, and ran into the penalty area from the left. Van Dijk seemed most concerned with making sure Trossard did not cut back inside onto his stronger right foot, and by hanging back he allowed the Belgian time and space to shoot with his left from an angle that looked unpromising – until a deflection off Van Dijk’s outstretched toe took the shot through Alisson’s legs and into the net.

Post-match analysis identified this as ‘lazy defending’ from a player who has perhaps already mentally checked out of the club. It’s worth noticing that this was just the sort of percentage play for which Van Dijk has been praised in happier times.

Remember his famous one-against-two defending against Tottenham at Anfield in 2019, when, given the choice between tackling the ball-carrier, Moussa Sissoko, or cutting off the pass to the player in support, Son Heung-min, Van Dijk decided to cover the more dangerous Son and let Sissoko shoot from the edge of the box. Sissoko blasted it high and wide and Van Dijk was hailed as a mastermind. A better shot from Sissoko and nobody would have been rushing to rewrite the defending textbooks.

If you separate these moments from the emotionally-conditioned analysis, you see that Van Dijk has been quite consistent. The obviously-impressive thing about him as a footballer is his great size and strength, yet his approach to defending has always been quite passive, based more on calculation rather than physique. When it works, people marvel at how he seems to be able to defend using sheer aura. When it doesn’t, he’s like a goalkeeper who decides to stay in the middle at a penalty kick and then looks foolish as the ball rolls into the corner.

Van Dijk’s style is not to everyone’s taste. Marco van Basten has been a persistent critic, arguing he lacks leadership and “creates chaos” for his team-mates. You can imagine van Basten nodding furiously at the first two Arsenal goals yesterday.

Yet Van Dijk’s way has worked well for a long time in the Premier League, and since it depends more on decisions than physicality, it should keep working for a long time yet. Not a lot is clear about Liverpool’s future right now, but they should be working to make sure that van Dijk will be part of it.