Those who have been on Mars since Liverpool last packed out Anfield may have missed what Virgil van Dijk has gone through since March 2020. But on inspection of his performance against Burnley, one would have been forgiven for not realising that this was his first competitive home game in over 10 months.
It was at Goodison Park last October that Jordan Pickford lunged in on the Dutch centre-back, sidelining him and requiring surgery on his anterior cruciate ligament. Van Dijk will be the first to say that the subsequent months of rehab have been challenging. He had to watch on as his team-mates faltered in uncharacteristic fashion and the reason for that, it was argued, was his absence.
The Van Dijk-less Liverpool only got an outing in the behind-closed-doors matches and so it was quite fitting that the return of crowds en masse to Liverpool’s stadium saw the 30-year-old also return for his first home game in a long time. Somehow, the record still stands that Van Dijk is yet to lose any of the 48 Premier League games he has played for Liverpool at Anfield.
If last week’s game against Norwich eased Van Dijk back into Premier League action then the arrival of Burnley on Saturday lunchtime provided a unique and more challenging test. The double striker set-up that Sean Dyche deploys is always something different for top-flight opponents to navigate. Chris Wood, who scored 12 league goals last season, and Ashley Barnes rarely give the defence they come up against an easy ride.
The pushes and thrusts that Wood and Barnes offer are not likely to be seen on Liverpool’s training pitch during practice. This was blood-and-thunder football, all the more full-throttle given the referees seemingly relaxing their stance on contact and challenges in the early stages of this season, thus allowing the game to flow to a greater extent.
Van Dijk stood up to everything that the Burnley attack threw at him, which was sizeable as Dyche’s team were particularly attack-minded in the first-half when they tried to get crosses into the Liverpool area early. The job that Van Dijk and his centre-back partner Joel Matip performed was highlighted by their only lapse occurring late on when Alisson thwarted Barnes after he was allowed a run at goal.
Matip’s role, and his own return to fitness after a six-month injury lay-off, should not be underestimated. The German may be understated in the way he goes about his business but rarely puts a foot wrong.
What does differentiate Van Dijk from his fellow defender is the manner in which he can launch attacks with precise long-balls. He was midway in his own half, with time to survey his options, when he opted to deliver one of his trademark, 60-yards sweeping passes out to the right-wing. That instigated Liverpool’s second goal of the afternoon with Sadio Mane finishing the move off.
Van Dijk’s calmness is well-noted but the clarity with which he thinks about the game and also executes his tackles and passes is equally remarkable. His return to the team has helped Liverpool to two wins and two clean sheets; already Jurgen Klopp’s side looks in a better place than they did for large spells of last season. Next weekend’s match with Chelsea and the prospect of Van Dijk versus Romelu Lukaku is mouthwatering.
“It’s cool having Virgil back,” Klopp said. “There were times when he was on the edge because of the intensity of the game. It was a proper test with the strikers always in your body. We now have six centre-halves which we needed and they will all play because the first four (Van Dijk, Matip, Joe Gomez and Ibrahima Konate) we have to mix it up.
“After a long injury you shouldn’t play three games a week, but I didn’t have a chance to change for Burnley because they have a specific threat and I needed defenders who are used to playing together.”
Assists for both full-backs
Yet, this two-goal victory was far from the Van Dijk show. There were impressive performances from both full-backs who each assisted one of the home side’s goals. Trent Alexander-Arnold teed-up Mane to take his assist count to 33 since the start of the 2018/19 campaign, only Kevin De Bruyne has managed more with 34. Furthermore, the Liverpool right-back has now assisted the same number of Premier League goals as Cristiano Ronaldo but has taken 65 appearances fewer to achieve the feat.
On the opposite flank, Kostas Tsimikas got his first taste of Anfield on full volume. The Greek left-back joined last summer but struggled to get going, mainly because of Andy Robertson’s insatiable appetite for games.
But here, with Robertson out through injury, the deputy stepped up to be counted and the crowning moment of his game, despite the assist for Diogo Jota’s goal, was when a thunderous applause greeted his tenacious maintenance of possession when hounded by a posse of Burnley players. He didn’t give in and the Liverpool crowd always like that.
Klopp also gave a full Premier League debut to 18-year-old Harvey Elliott, who spent last season on loan at Blackburn Rovers. His impression on the right side of Liverpool’s midfield was highlighted by his more senior team-mates consistently trusting him in driving possession forwards.
That position, vacated by Georginio Wijnaldum, is available for a player should they impress and Elliott, who could have had his first league assist had Mo Salah’s goal not been ruled out for offside, did little not to suggest that despite his tender years he can be that player. His performance was one of many positives that Liverpool could take.