The ball comes soaring through the Brighton night air. A shout of ‘Squeeze! Squeeze!’ echoes across the cavernous AMEX Stadium. As Lewis Dunk’s pass hurtles towards Virgil van Dijk, with an eager Aaron Connolly snapping at his heels, the imposing Dutch defender – for once – seems to have misjudged something.
That is until Van Dijk cushions a header – not into the path of a teammate – but behind the onrushing Connolly, slamming on the breaks and nimbly shifting his 6’4 frame past the Irish striker before completely the recovery with a perfunctory no-look pass.
On a night which began ominously for the hosts, as Liverpool raced into a 2-0 lead before the eight-minute mark, Brighton admirably fought back and were one miscued Dan Burn volley away from restoring parity at one point.
But Liverpool, marshalled by the dominant presence of Van Dijk on his 29th birthday, came through as 3-1 winners to record a 30th win of the Premier League season with four games still to go – the joint-highest tally the club have ever recorded in a top flight campaign.
Van Dijk is the only member of Liverpool’s squad yet to miss a single minute of league football this season. Should the centre-back retain this ever-present status, he would become just the fifth outfield player to feature in every second of a Premier League-winning campaign.
This robustness is not a recent phenomenon. Since his arrival at Liverpool in January 2017, Van Dijk has missed just two matches sidelined by injury. Van Dijk’s teammates have suggested that this staggering level of consistency is, in part, down to his economic movement on the pitch.
In an interview with Sky Sports earlier in the season, Andy Robertson – with tongue firmly in cheek – gave his estimate for the distance his defensive colleague covers each match: “5km a game [for] ‘Big Virg’. That’s why he’s so fresh and looks elegant when he’s walking off the pitch.”
Trent Alexander-Arnold’s offering of ‘cruise control’ in the same interview neatly conveys the ease with which Van Dijk seems to play the game.
The sight of Van Dijk halting the path of an advancing attacker is nothing new – although the particular verve to his juggling display against Brighton was notable. Over the two seasons prior to the current campaign, Van Dijk had been dribbled past just three times in more than 5,600 Premier League minutes.
However, that figure has rocketed up to nine this term alone. Rather than the prompt for fanciful talk of the Dutchman’s decline, this statistical quirk is likely a consequence of Liverpool’s defence playing with a higher line, leaving more space for opponents to actually dribble in.
Liverpool’s backline may be a bit leakier this season – with four games to go, they have already conceded 26 goals compared to their final tally of 22 last year – but Van Dijk has never been better.
The imperious Dutchman has rarely put a foot wrong since arriving in Merseyside. 18 months later, he sits, effortlessly, at the heart of defence for the reigning world, European and Premier League champions. Still finding new ways to encapsulate his brilliance.