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Would you have bought Van Dijk from Celtic?

PFA Player of the Year. How did he spend two years at Celtic?

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Mark Thompson

May 07 2019

8 mins read

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Hello again. The fun thing about this newsletter going out on a Tuesday means writing it on a Monday, which means waking up and seeing all the disgruntled tweets about Game of Thrones. It sets a nice low bar for me to clear.

A player who’s had to clear a very high bar in the past 18 months is Virgil van Dijk, arriving at Liverpool for the eye-watering price that he did. So, I’m interested in knowing what the Dutchman was like at Celtic.

I’ve seen contrasting reports about it in the past. Some have said that they tried to get Van Dijk signed up straight away (which sounds a lot like an Arsene Wenger-ism), some clearly weren’t sure whether he was ready for a big step up.

Because this is just a newsletter and not an in-depth report, I just watched one game, a Europa League tie at Parkhead against Inter Milan (one including future teammate Xherdan Shaqiri, in an amusing turn).

There were a couple of things in Van Dijk’s game that night that have been a through-line from that game in February 2015 to his PFA Player of the Year performances in 2019.

One is the so-good-it’s-scary body control he has.

The below situation actually comes from an uncharacteristic piece of miscontrol from Van Dijk that gifts Inter possession.

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As the man on the ball drives centrally and the man between him and Van Dijk pulls to the left, pinning Van Dijk’s RCB partner Jason Denayer, it forces Van Dijk into a decision.

He picks a good moment to step up towards the man on the ball, but I’m interested in the way that he does it. Look at the little steps he takes as he turns. The fact he’s never off-balance.

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It’s hard to do a firm comparison, but if most other defenders are required to turn like that, they’ll tend to brace their legs as they put their feet down, the lack of bend in their leg being the thing that slows them down (regular disclaimer here that I’m not a kinaesthetics expert).

This tends to work for taking away pace that a player’s using, but it’s not so good for balance. Van Dijk, on the other hand, takes all that speed away in his knees and thighs, every little step acting like a shock absorber. He takes about five or six steps as he turns almost a complete 180, and only one - one of the first - is a ‘bracing’ step.

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Again, not a kinaesthetics expert, but I think this is part of what enables Van Dijk to be so good. The skill in one-on-ones or runs in behind defences is catching the defending players off-balance (generally physically, sometimes mentally, though the latter tends to lead to the former). If you’re turn like Van Dijk, it’s going to be incredibly difficult to catch you out.

Van Dijk coupled this physical skill with a good reading of the game.

Inter have managed to get the ball into space in midfield. There is no-one between the man on the ball and Van Dijk. WHAT WILL OUR INTREPID HERO DO NOW?!

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It turns out that Van Dijk stays exactly where he is. He just moves his body slightly, De Gea-esque, to block a potential pass.

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I think that Van Dijk reads the player on the ball’s intention to make the pass in behind Van Dijk, which is why the Dutchman doesn’t feel he needs to do anything more than this (and I’ll come back to this later too).

The man on the ball delays for a moment, waiting (or hoping) for his teammate to get into some space. Van Dijk shifts a step to his right, in exactly the same position.

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And intercepts the pass.

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Now, I said I’d come back to why Van Dijk stays more or less exactly where he was when the player initially received the ball. One reason might just be incredible foresight. As good as the centre-back is, though, I’m not giving him credit for being psychic.

This is the third through-line between Van Dijk’s Celtic days and now — he’s a defender who naturally drops off. I’ve mentioned this previously in Get Goalside!, when Van Dijk was on international duty alongside Matthijs de Ligt.

[Leroy] Sane was pushing up quite a lot throughout the match. In the first half, that made Van Dijk [who was on his side] retreat a little, rather than try and play him offside throughout large periods of the game. Whether the Liverpool centre-back didn’t communicate this or De Ligt didn’t notice it, the 19-year-old from Ajax stayed keeping a high line.

In the second half, [the centre-backs switched sides so that van Dijk was no longer paired against Sane and De Ligt was the one dropping off to deal with him]. Whether through a natural inclination to drop off or because he was more aware of where his centre-back partner was, Van Dijk dropped off level with De Ligt. It helped.


I think that Van Dijk’s natural inclination is to drop a touch deeper than other centre-backs. It was the case at Celtic, probably a factor in Van Dijk staying where he was in the previous screenshots, and the case now.

The body control and reading of the game are positives, the inclination to drop deep is value-neutral — a stylistic thing — but there were a couple of definite negatives in the game too.

The first goal, scored by Shaqiri, comes from the Powercube himself making a run behind Van Dijk. The defender’s feet are pretty planted to the ground. He doesn’t take a look over his shoulder.

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I would say that this is uncharacteristic, but there were a couple of other times during the match where a similar thing happened with Van Dijk looking like he was trying to keep an offside line and trying to watch what the player on the ball was doing.

Too late, Van Dijk checks his shoulder and Shaqiri has a run on him. Van Dijk’s feet have only just started moving.

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The goal ends up being a little fortuitous, but the distance between the two of them is pretty clear when the pass is in flight.

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That instance captures a lack of awareness* and lack of foot movement, two things that might put a scout off a player. They’re also things that have probably improved since 2015.

*His standing-still interception kind of plays into this. Without better quality images I can’t be 100% certain, but I’m pretty sure Van Dijk doesn’t look over his shoulder at the run in behind him. He’s basing his actions on where the player on the ball is looking. That’s fine, and is often intelligent defending, but I get wary of players who rely on it too much, which I think the centre-back probably was in the lead-up to Shaqiri’s goal.

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I don’t think these things are necessarily things that have been completely eradicated from Van Dijk’s game, but I’d say they’re less of an issue now.

A sidenote: This is a useful exercise to do with players to get a gauge on how general player progression goes. From the outside, it’s hard to know how a player is going to progress as time goes on (from the inside, it’s probably difficult to tell too). But you can get an idea of how likely it is that a player will pick up or improve a certain skill.

You’re not able to get that just from one match, but y’know, hypothetically.

Thanks for reading. Let me know any thoughts, either on Twitter @EveryTeam_Mark or, if you’re viewing this as an email, just hit ‘reply’. If you’re not a subscriber, though, now’s a great time to do it. Get the weekly Get Goalside! football analysis newsletter to your inbox totally free.

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Other stuff

I wrote an article this week over at Football Whispers about whether players defend differently after they’ve been booked. I think it’s pretty interesting. Read it here.

I also wrote a blog post about trying to come up with a data visualisation for it, if you’re interested in that kind of thing. That’s here.

Thanks for reading. If you’ve enjoyed this or found it interesting, it’d be great to share this around. ‘Til next week :)

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