Nerdy by Nature – Return of King Van Dijk

I come not to bury this man but to laud him.  A conquering king, who disappeared for a time, has returned and made all things right in the motherland.  Our hero has returned, and with it, dreams of greatness, joy and happiness.  Today is a day we celebrate for our King is back.

Folks, Virgil Van Dijk is back.  And if he stays healthy, all the pundits can say whatever nonsense they want, LFC is in the hunt for a title again.  He’s that important, he’s that good and this isn’t hyperbole.  And you’ll see why as we go through this piece.

The first game of the season is when everyone takes one game and hyperbolizes it to extremes.  Spurs won’t lose a game all season.  City can’t win without buying a billion pounds worth of players.  Brentford will be the best team in the league.  Paul Pogba will end the season with 141 assists.  Leeds will be relegated on 2 points.  Things like that.

We know that other than the Manchester City thing, all those things won’t happen.  But this piece is not hyperbole.  Virgil Van Dijk is that good.

Location, Location, Location

Let’s start by looking at some heat maps.  First, let’s look at a heat map for our hero. (courtesy whoscored)

As we can see, there’s not much interesting in here.  He spent a lot of time in the defensive half but one thing we can see is that he spent time further up the pitch.  Because of his speed and ability to see things before they happen and recover, he can move up the pitch because he’s not worried about what happens behind him.  Outside of a little blue outside the Norwich City box (corner kicks), Van Dijk showed that he could move the beginning of the attack from further up the pitch.  That will help offensively as it shrinks the distance the ball needs to go to get to the main attackers.  Being able to have that high line and not be exposed will be a very big advantage.

But what I would like to show you more impressively is the entire Norwich City squad heat map, seen below.

Do you notice where their heat map is COMPLETELY BLANK??  Yeah.  When I saw this I laughed out loud.  Norwich has a star striker in Teemu Pukki.  He moves through the middle of the field and down both channels to find space.  Virgil Van Dijk shows back up in the lineup and it’s like he put a wall up.  There is almost no activity in the middle of the field in the final third for the canaries.  If you can keep all the play outside, your chances of giving up a goal go down significantly.

Look, Norwich aren’t the best team in the world, but they are a good team with high quality attacking options.  For them to be completely shut out in the middle of the park is saying something.  What it’s saying is “We couldn’t find any room because you have a perfect center back playing back there”.

Ok, so he showed up and they didn’t play near him.  That’s what the heat maps say.  But does that mean he didn’t do anything except stand there?  Oh no.  First we’ll talk about his defensive contributions before we flip to the other side of the ball.

Defensively, when Norwich dared to attack him, he made almost zero mistakes.  First thing we see is the rate at which he tackled.  He was 0/0 on tackles.  That means he didn’t even attempt one tackle.  That shows how little the ball even came near him.  It also shows something else.  When a CB doesn’t need to tackle, it shows that his tactical acumen is so high that he doesn’t need to do that, he just eliminates problems.

King of the Air.  And The Floor

In aerial duels, he was 4/4.  He was the only defender to block a cross.  In addition, he led the team with 5 clearances, he had 9 ball recoveries and didn’t make a defensive error the entire game.  His game honestly doesn’t look that great from the numbers, but that’s because of that Norwich heat map.  He showed up and the middle of the field completely disappeared.

But let’s flip it to the other side.  Let’s look at what impact he made going forward where he is underrated by those who don’t watch Liverpool – and some who do.

Let’s start with passing.  He was 79/85 passing the ball during the game on Saturday for an accuracy rate of 93%.  Yes, many of those are short passes back and forth to Joel Matip and to Kostas Tsimikas.  I don’t want to focus on those though.  Most CBs will rate highly there.  What I want to focus on is his medium and long passes.  He was 38/40 on medium passes – defined as passes between 15 and 30 yards in distance.  Considering the way Norwich had to be compact, being that accurate on medium length balls is excellent.  The only player more accurate with more than 15 passes was Naby Keita at 22.  Van Dijk still was that accurate with 40 passes.

Beyond that, he excelled in long passes as well – defined as passes longer than 30 yards.  He was 19/23.  For context, let’s look at some stats for last year.  Over the course of the year, the only non GKs who averaged that many long passes per game were Trent Alexander-Arnold and Shkrodan Mustafi.  Trent averaged a 53% accuracy rate while Mustafi was better at 66.7%.  Both decent but nowhere near as good as Virgil’s 83%.  In 2019-2020, his last full season, the only non GK who attempted more long passes than him was Trent again.  But in that season, Van Dijk was significantly more accurate, succeeding at a 79% rate.  The only players better than him are the midfielders and forwards who are supposed to be and you’d expect, guys like Ilkay Gundogan, Georgio Wijnaldum, folks like that.  So as a defender, his accuracy and volume are pretty outrageous.  What this does is eliminate defenders from Norwich and allow the Liverpool attackers to get the ball in dangerous areas.

And the data backs that up.  He led the team with passes into the final third with 8.  He was second in the team in progressive passes – defined as passes that move the ball more than 10 yards past the point of the last 6 passes in the buildup and in the middle and attacking thirds only – with 5.  He also carried the ball the most with 66 carries and he was second in progressive carries – defined as carries that move the ball more than 5 yards past where the ball was in the attacking 60% of the field – with 4 of those.

MVD – Most Valuable Defender

All those stats are good but there needs to be context.  And the best context is to see what Liverpool did last year with their CBs.  In terms of progressive passes per game, Nat Phillips was the leader among CBs with about 3.  That’s 2 less passes a game.  In a 90 minute game, that doesn’t seem like much.  But when a team averages 50 progressive passes a game, and most of them are from the midfielders, missing 2 to 3 a game from a back line player is pretty large.

It allows the focus of the play to change from only coming from the fullbacks to now coming from anywhere.  What that does is change the angles defenders have to defend when playing against Liverpool and that only opens up more space.  If you know the Liverpool defenders aren’t going to attempt long passes or try to progress the ball, you can angle yourself toward the closest full back.  Now, you can’t which means if Van Dijk does outlet the ball to a fullback, a defender is trying to catch up.  His ability to spray the ball around causes defenders to have to defend differently and that’s only good for the Liverpool midfield and defense.  In terms of passes into the final third, Nat Phillips led the defenders again with 4.9 per game.  That’s half of what Van Dijk did.  Those things over 38 games add up.

We all know he’s the best defender in the world.  Having him back immediately makes Liverpool’s defense better and goaltending better (as Alisson will see easier shots in general over the course of the season).  But Virgil Van Dijk is also a playmaker as a center back.  When you have a center back that is the rock defensively AND can lead the play from the back and be a game changer going forward, that changes the game.

That’s why you can tell pundits to shove it.  “Oh Virgil is great but is he worth more than 3-4 points a season really?  They ended 17 points behind City, getting him back isn’t enough of a difference”.  Well, I’d argue that he’s worth 10-15 points by himself.  So first off, feel free to tell the pundits to shove it.  And second, please all hail our returning and conquering hero and king, Virgil Van Dijk!!

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