Talking Tactics

How revitalised Van Dijk can stand up to threat of Haaland

By Adrian Clarke 23 Nov 2023
Virgil van Dijk

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Adrian Clarke looks at key tactical points and players who can be decisive in Matchweek 13.

Player analysis: Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool)

Van Dijk versus Erling Haaland is set to be one of the duels of the season when Liverpool travel to Manchester City this Saturday lunchtime.

They have only met five times in their respective careers so far, with the Liverpool defender boasting four wins and a draw in their head-to-heads.

There are not many centre-backs in world football with enough strength, pace and nous to feel they can go toe-to-toe with confidence against last season’s Premier League Golden Boot winner - but Van Dijk is among that select group.

Ahead of their much-anticipated clash at the Etihad Stadium, Van Dijk will also be buoyed by his much-improved form.

Last time they met

It is over 13 months since Van Dijk last faced Haaland, shining in a hard-fought 1-0 success at Anfield.

Van Dijk v Haaland recent meetings
Match Competition Result Haaland goals
Liverpool v Man City Premier League 1-0 0
Liverpool v Man City FA Community Shield 3-1 0
Norway v Netherlands International 1-1 1
Liverpool v RB Salzburg UEFA Champions League 4-3 1
RB Salzburg v Liverpool UEFA Champions League 0-2 0

That afternoon, it was clear Haaland wanted to target Van Dijk's centre-back partner Joe Gomez as often as he could, regularly keeping his distance from the Dutchman.

However, when the pair did come together at close quarters, it was Van Dijk who came out on top.

He made one magnificent recovery clearance from underneath his own crossbar (below) when it appeared certain Haaland was going to score, showing tremendous speed to beat him to the ball.

Watch Van Dijk’s brilliant recovery clearance

While Liverpool were content to defend a little deeper than they usually do, Van Dijk’s speed and physicality does give the option to hold a higher line when necessary.

Back to his best

The 2022/23 campaign was a poor one by Van Dijk’s high standards, but he has rebuilt his form and confidence.

He has been more aggressive in his battles with opposition forwards and eradicated the rash mistakes which blighted him last season, barely putting a foot wrong across the opening 12 matches.

See: How Guardiola and Klopp's tactics have continuously evolved

A quick glance at his impressive record in ground and aerial duels tells the story of a defender who is now very much in control of his game.

No Premier League defender who has featured for 800+ minutes can match his 80.5 per cent win rate in duels.

His 51 successful aerial duels also place him second in the division’s rankings behind Brentford centre-back Ethan Pinnock, with 59.

Virgil van Dijk's duels success
No way past

Van Dijk famously went through the entire 2018/19 campaign without an opposition player dribbling past him, and he is currently on course to emulate that amazing feat.

Staying on his feet and refusing to dive in, he has been immaculate in his decision-making.

He has regained his aura and rival players are now reticent to try and take him on. But Haaland is sure to back himself to go past Van Dijk if he is given the space to attempt it.

Least dribbled-past defenders 23/24*
Player Dribbled past Minutes played
Virgil van Dijk 0 838
William Saliba 1 1080
Ezri Konsa 1 1080
Kurt Zouma 1 990

*Minimum 800 minutes played

Van Dijk has always been strong in this department, but last season he was dribbled past 11 times by opposition players.

That was a clear sign of how uncomfortable he felt, but he has looked significantly more at ease with himself in 2023/24.

Van Dijk dribbled past by season
Season Dribbled past PL defender rank*
2018/19 0 1st
2019/20 7 =18th
2020/21 N/A N/A
2021/22 5 9th
2022/23 11 =38th
2023/24 0 1st

*Minimum 1,000 minutes played

Follow Saliba's blueprint

There is no fail-safe way to contain Haaland’s threat inside the final third, but Van Dijk has the basic tools to handle him.

Arsenal centre-back William Saliba, a player with similar attributes, won his physical duels with the Norwegian back in October, getting tight at every opportunity and affording him very little space to run into.

As a team, the Gunners got their distances right, refusing to drop too deep, but also never caught holding an unnecessarily high line.

In Man City's 1-0 defeat at Emirates Stadium, only four of Haaland’s 27 touches were inside the box, and he failed to have a shot.

This is the blueprint Liverpool will try and follow.

Van Dijk cannot stop this season's leading scorer alone - it must be a collective effort. But his core strengths should ensure Haaland has to work hard as he attempts to net his 50th Premier League goal.

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