With apologies to whoever writes Football365’s annual list of the greatest players of this calendar year, I am unashamedly giving away the ending. The wizard is just a man speaking through a microphone, Roger Kint is Keyser Soze, Tyler Durden is not real and Virgil van Dijk is our player of 2018. The man who finished eighth in 2016 after a stellar year with Southampton will finish first in 2018 after a phenomenal year with Liverpool. He has been nothing short of magnificent.
Last year’s list contained just one centre-half – Cesar Azpilicueta – amid a general bemoaning of the standard of defending in the Premier League and beyond. Our winner was Kevin De Bruyne and Daniel Storey noted that ‘most impressive are the immeasurables’ while other players had scored or assisted more. The immeasurables are equally – if not more – impressive with the Dutchman, who is almost unbeatable in the air and pretty damned good on the ground too. He is a mass of contradictions – physically a colossus and yet wonderfully elegant, predictably reliable and yet surprisingly excellent, demanding all the attention and yet disappearing into the background.
The calmness he brings to Liverpool where previously there was panic is almost magical. The sixth-best team of 2017 has become the second-best team of 2018 – with by some distance the best defence – and a large portion of the credit must go to Van Dijk, who has exuded professionalism, hunger and immeasurable defensive nous since the second he became a Liverpool player in January. Jamie Carragher recently called him ‘one of the most instantly successful Anfield recruits of the last 30 years’. You will not find a Liverpool single supporter or pundit with a ‘but’ or any opposition fan who does not wish he was their colossus. In an era where we count success in trophies won, goals scored or chances created per 90, here is quite an old-fashioned concept: Van Dijk is quite simply a brilliant defender. He is the very best in England. And in 2018 his individual influence on Liverpool has been greater than trophies won and goals scored elsewhere.
We do not know how Liverpool would now cope without Van Dijk – and perhaps the added safety net of Alisson would preclude a total collapse – and that in itself is testament to his reliability. Since he made his Premier League debut for Liverpool, he has failed to start just one top-flight game when he was clearly rested ahead of an FA Cup clash. Since then he has been ever-present and has now kept a remarkable 17 clean sheets in 30 Premier League games. “His thumb is always up,” says Jurgen Klopp when discussing the reliability of his availability. The German does not want to find out how Liverpool would now cope without Van Dijk; he has missed just 35 minutes of Premier League football this season, when bruised ribs were leaving him struggling for the breath to shout against Southampton.
Perhaps too much is made of the concept of leadership in football – Manchester City are a wonderful football team without an obvious tub-thumper since the phasing-out of Vincent Kompany – but this Liverpool defence absolutely needed a leader. They needed an organiser. They were plagued by a combination of excusable inexperience and inexcusable ineptitude. A defence that conceded 1.125 goals per Premier League game in 2017 has conceded just 0.6 goals per game in 2018, and that includes a 4-3 against Manchester City before Van Dijk was available. They have not conceded two goals in any top-flight game since April, when one eye on a Champions League semi-final meant rare appearances for Ragnar Klavan and Alberto Moreno against West Brom. Even Van Dijk could not beat those odds.
As Liverpool prepared to face Napoli in a game that will define their European season on Tuesday, it was Van Dijk who accompanied his manager to face the press. It was Van Dijk who laughed off suggestions that he must be tired. It was Van Dijk who described this game as a ‘final’. It was Van Dijk who admitted that “it’s our own fault we are in this position but we have a way of getting out of it”. And it will be Van Dijk who will take responsibility for delivering half of the scoreline that will take Liverpool through. But even if he fails, he still our player of 2018. We’re not fickle.