One consistent criticism of the PFA Player of the Year awards is the voting deadline; professionals traditionally have to submit their ballot slip in March with the name of the footballer they believe to have made the biggest impact on a season which is usually only just approaching its denouement.
This year Liverpool’s dominance has made the deadline irrelevant. Yet voters still appear to be in danger of making the wrong choice.
Jordan Henderson has been backed into being the bookies’ favourite to win the award, largely thanks to media coverage powered by sentiment and good will. It’s true that no one with an objective eye will begrudge Henderson whatever honours he gathers this season and most neutrals can appreciate the prospect of an often-derided player lifting the Reds’ first ever Premier League trophy.
Henderson’s is a feel-good story. One of a hard-grafting good egg growing into his own skin while rising from his lowest ebb – Brendan Rodgers trying to offload him to Fulham in part-exchange for Clint Dempsey – through a succession of injuries, to the pinnacle of the game in Madrid last June when he lifted Liverpool’s sixth Champions League trophy.
On the road to the title via Madrid, many of Henderson’s performances have been exceptional, some world class, especially when Liverpool have had to grind out victories, which has happened more often this season than we will come to remember about the all-conquering Reds.
But he hasn’t been Liverpool’s best player, nor the most important cog in Jurgen Klopp’s winning machine. That status unquestionably belongs to Virgil van Dijk.
How is it that the world’s best central defender, the Ballon d’Or runner-up, is still available as a 10/1 shot for the PFA gong? Liverpool’s title procession has been built on its defence, which is in turn constructed around Van Dijk.
Liverpool have conceded 15 goals this season – 11 fewer than any other side – and Alisson could make a justifiable claim for any of the Player of the Year awards up for grabs. The Brazilian keeper has saved 40 of the 46 shots on target he has faced so far this season, giving him the best shots-to-saves ratio in Europe’s top five leagues by some distance.
But he has also been the Premier League’s least-worked stopper. Liverpool have faced 70 shots on target all season, less than half the number of Newcastle, whose goal has been peppered most. Liverpool have good reason to be grateful to Alisson, but he in turn will acknowledge his good fortune to play behind the league’s best defence.
📅 OTD in 2017, Liverpool announced the signing of Virgil van Dijk…
∙ 99 appearances
∙ 72 wins
∙ 41 clean sheets
∙ Champions League winner
∙ UEFA Super Cup winner
∙ Club World Cup winner
∙ PFA Player of the Year 2018/19
∙ 2nd in 2019 Ballon d'Orpic.twitter.com/1JtATyK7Ah
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) December 27, 2019
Van Dijk is undoubtedly the primary factor in that defensive success. Three-quarters of Liverpool’s back four have come under scrutiny this term, with assister-in-chief Trent Alexander-Arnold’s defensive capabilities still being properly assessed while Andrew Robertson has endured a lull in his form. Van Dijk has had various partners who have performed to varying degrees of competency – let’s not forget Joel Matip was outstanding earlier in the season – but the Dutchman’s peerless performances have remained the bedrock upon which Klopp’s champions are built.
Not that anyone is surprised. Van Dijk earned last year’s PFA crown and his superiority has in no way diminished; but we should be wary of becoming complacent to his consistent brilliance. Nobody since Cristiano Ronaldo 12 years ago has won back-to-back awards and so keen was everyone – particularly in the media – to ensure the silver was being shared around again that Ryan Giggs won it the following season in lieu of a lifetime achievement award. The Manchester United veteran made 12 starts and scored one league goal that season.
Henderson’s contribution has been considerably more pivotal to Liverpool this season than Giggs’ to United in 2009. But similar sentiment would be behind votes cast for the captain of Liverpool rather than its quiet, peerless leader. Henderson’s ascent is to be celebrated but not at the expense of removing the crown from Van Dijk’s magnetic bonce.