Ten seconds in the life of Virgil van Dijk

Breaking down *that* moment against Tottenham

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Hello! It’s been quite a busy week work-wise as Football Whispers helped out with the International Champions Cup launch for 2019. Call it Stockholm Syndrome or company shilling, but I’m actually excited about a good degree of it*. Good matches, a women’s tournament, and their launch events included this really good panel with Briana Scurry, Cobi Jones, and Shaka Hislop on racism in football.

If you’re an American, there was also this fun panel with Heather O’Reilly and six members of the 1999 USWNT World Cup winning team. (skip to 45 mins in)

Anyway, on with the show. Because I’ve been busy, it’s a good thing there was a big moment in Liverpool vs Tottenham to talk about.

Breaking down Virgil van Dijk and *that* 1 vs 2

A lot’s been made of Virgil van Dijk defending the 1vs2 in the win against Tottenham Hotspur. There’ll be a Liverpool fan, somewhere, who’s named their kid virgil_van_dijk_1_vs_2.gif (it’ll probably be rejected by the registry office, or crash their system).

I’m wary of this newsletter being one of those “here’s a popular thing that I must backlash against”, but the sequence, which lasted fewer than ten seconds, deserves to be forensically dissected.

Principally, this is because Moussa Sissoko had his eyes on Son with love, awe, pride, who knows. Shooting was a last resort for Sissoko. As far along the move as below, he still only had eyes for the pass.

Outnumbering the defence is handy because you have more options. Sissoko, by being so wedded to squaring it to Son, stripped the attack of options.

Look how straight every single part of his body is in this moment. He isn’t prepared to use a burst of pace to go towards goal and force Van Dijk to chase him (which might, in turn, have opened up a passing lane to Son).

Contrast that to Van Dijk. You can see (without me drawing on it) that he’s leaning in the right direction to put on a chase, if needed, although much of his body is still pretty straight.

This is what makes Van Dijk so excellent in these moments – and yes, even though Sissoko made this particular moment pretty simple for him, that doesn’t detract from Van Dijk’s quality when put in situations like this.

I have to clarify that I’m not, like, a qualified expert in the study of body mechanics, but. When you’re doing anything with weights, it’s one thing to simply lift, or do pull-ups, or push-ups; it’s another to be in perfect control throughout the motion.

Some defenders have noticeable gears. They walk, then they jog, then they have a couple of sprinting gears. Van Dijk is able to move through those gears more fluidly than perhaps any other defender in the world.

Whereas some defenders would have to kick themselves up a gear to match a burst of pace from Sissoko (which the Frenchman did, but badly), Van Dijk just eases right into it.

So, Sissoko made it simple, but it’s still allowed me to show how Van Dijk is good. What else *checks list*.

Ah yes.

I was already planning on writing about this moment, but friend and Statsbomb’s Head of Hot Takes James Yorke pointed out that Sissoko’s shot was actually quite a decent chance. Sure, he shanked it, but he was in a fair amount of space, with no defenders in front of him, inside the box.

Some expected goals models put it at a 0.3xg chance. Opta’s seemingly doesn’t judge it that high, but it hasn’t been designated as a Big Chance by them, which tends to give a noticeable boost in expected goals models.

Although James’ point is true, Van Dijk being Van Dijk means he gets far closer to the shot than some others might have done. If Sissoko hadn’t shanked the shot so much, would the Dutchman have blocked it?

Maybe.

(Not that it matters, but I’m putting the shanking down to the panic, rather than it being Sissoko’s weaker foot. The vibe I’ve been getting from a lot of the social media reaction has been that Van Dijk was really clever to leave Sissoko on his weaker foot because that is all the Spurs man can do with it. I think Sissoko’s capable of a lot more with his weaker foot, probably, but suddenly realising you’ve screwed up a tremendous opportunity because you were so focussed on passing to a teammate sets the panic in).

There’s definitely a world where Sissoko doesn’t shank his shot, and his clear sight at goal means he forces a save from Alisson and people wonder why Van Dijk didn’t come across sooner.

Should Van Dijk have done something differently to prevent or pressure the Sissoko shot? *Non-committal shrug*. Sissoko on his weaker foot is worse than Son on either foot. If Sissoko had managed to square it, the chance would have been even more open than it was.

Having now watched this clip a lot of times, and I’m more caught up in being annoyed at Sissoko than involved in Van Dijk’s defending. Sissoko gets the ball properly under control here:

There is – and I apologise to Spurs fans for going over this – sooooooooo much space for him to attack and so many options for what to do in it.

Drive straight towards goal; pull out on a slight angle to the left to open more space and a better angle for the pass; pull out even further just to freak Van Dijk out and force him into making an actual decision; hell, even putting a lengthy through ball for Son to run onto and either shoot himself or play a return square ball might have been better than what actually happened.

THE WORLD IS YOUR ROCKY, SHINY OYSTER, MOUSSA, ITS PEARL IS A SECOND GOAL AGAINST LIVERPOOL, NOW GO OUT AND TAKE IT.

Let’s close with a hypothetical.

Let’s say Sissoko had driven forwards a little more than he had. We’ll keep his existing position as a ghost, a memory to what actually was and what could have been.

Ghost Sissoko – actual Sissoko – can play a pass behind Van Dijk or a pass in front of him that would be waaaay in front of Son and asking a lot of him. A race with Van Dijk to goal is on too, but given the (low) speed Sissoko is going at, it wouldn’t be hard for the defender to get across.

Actually, the pass behind Van Dijk isn’t necessarily a bad one, as long as it’s a good one. It’d force Van Dijk to turn his head and his body, and might give Son a chance to break, or could give a chance for Son to play a return pass to Sissoko who might have found more space. But anyway.

Hypothetical Sissoko, just a yard further up the pitch, has a better angle for the pass to Son and is has a better advantage in the race to goal. It would force Van Dijk to commit to covering Sissoko, rather than the pass.

Engage Van Dijk in a foot race, get to the box, check, square to Son. So many options.

As for how Van Dijk would have reacted in these hypothetical situations, we can only guess. He’d probably have done fairly well, but we’re basing that on our prior knowledge of the defender. In the grand scheme of 2 attackers vs 1 defender, Sissoko didn’t make it that tough.

In summary, this clip will get used in highlight reels of Van Dijk for years to come as an example of his exemplary defending. It isn’t. Not particularly. He survived the opposition attack imploding, but it was the opposition who set the implosion in progress.

But even though this shouldn’t be used in a highlight reel, it does feature some of the things that makes Van Dijk a good defender.

He avoids making a bad decision, which is half the battle. He has phenomenal control of his body in a way that deserves a mini-documentary**. He can move through the gears in a way that wrestles the term ‘silky’ away from on-ball activities and forces defending into the picture.

So yeah. This isn’t a “don’t believe the hype”. It’s a “be sensible about it”.

If you’re now more level-headed about this short ten seconds of a football match, tweet me a 🧐. If you’re still a fully paid member of the Van Dijk is the Greatest society, tweet me a 🐐.

**There’s a part of the move that I couldn’t really do through still pictures, and that I’m not sure I could currently do justice with in video, where he slows his run to better cut off the pass to Son. He slows himself, he shifts maybe half a yard to his right as he’s doing it, but all while continuing to face in a direction where he could chase down Sissoko if needed. It was good. But I didn’t want to disrupt that paragraph for this half-formed bit of analysis.

*External silence on other parts =/= endorsement or acceptance.

‘Til the next time

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‘Til the next time