Even a player hailed as the complete modern center-half appreciates all aspects of life in the post, whether it’s the aesthetic side of the game or the more agricultural. Virgil van Dijk and The Last Breath Defense Against the Wall don’t seem like obvious bedfellows, but he rejects the idea that his modern brethren aren’t embracing him.
“I think it happens to us a lot,” he says. “Watch the 2019 Champions League final. We can be a goal and the opponent is trying to do everything possible to try to win the game. We were back to the wall in Madrid against Tottenham and yes it’s a different situation than what we normally have because yes we usually attack and push forward but there are times when we have to give up and we have to organize. , and you have to take joy in this part of the game.
“You want to move forward, lose the ball high, but also gain it high and be on the front foot. I want to get off the pitch thinking I can play again. It would be the perfect game because it would mean that we were all perfect, we all did our jobs; but I’m definitely enjoying these more difficult times.
“That season, in the group stages, we played against Napoli who needed to win. We were 1-0 and really under pressure at the end, but Allison made that sick save knowing, “A goal, we came out. When Allison made this stop, I went to see him and celebrated with him like he had scored! It seems so important and helped us win the Champions League. I appreciate both sides. However, I prefer to be comfortable. It’s just me, maybe.
“Watch the semi-final second leg against Barcelona. Three less goals, then four ahead, knowing a goal, and we were out. It was amazing to keep a clean sheet that night against Lionel Messi, an individual who I think is the best of all time. ‘
Tactical fouls come from full-backs and midfielders when the lines in front of center-backs are broken. Today, the middle half are urged to ‘stand up’, not to engage in tackles, but as the last line of defense, and with spectators missing the old roar of a half game. central, are there still things of the trade that make fans and forwards wince?
“First of all, we have a hundred cameras on us!” said Van Dijk. “For me personally, I don’t like to hurt people. I just want to play and win fairly. Here is who I am. I’m not the type to try to win with different tactics.
“Some people suggest that I make the game look easy, but trust me, every game is very difficult. We play against world class forwards, very physical forwards, and I never think, ‘It’s easy’. Maybe I want my opponent to think I am. Look at Roger Federer. If you see him playing tennis, you think he’s not sweating. Mentally, it must be so difficult for his opponent, who will think he does not try.
“Sometimes I think like that. Try to get into the opponent’s head, not by talking to him, not kicking him, but trying to make him think that if he is to play well or score today, he is going to have to step up . Yes, you have to be confident in your own abilities or people will step on you. There are other ways to win matches; you don’t have to kick or curse people. “
The modern center-half who wants to play still faces a certain skepticism. An English center-half who recovers the ball, looks for a pass, seeks to reclaim that pass, to get things done is smiled, politely applauded, but too often thoughts rush to the worst case scenario. “It’s a mistake waiting to happen,” comes the whisper.
However, Van Dijk does not have it. “It’s more important today, the position. Much more. Nowadays playing from behind is a huge thing, especially for teams who like to be in possession of the ball. The biggest teams in world football want players who are comfortable on the ball, even in and around their own box. Being under pressure, players who take the ball can be of great help.
“At the time, maybe we expected the middle halves not to get involved. Give the ball to the midfielders and your job is just to make sure the defensive organization is there and defend the goal. Now everyone is getting involved. You still have to do this homework, but defenders are in so much more demand and the situation has changed. The position of the backs is also changing, they are almost like wingers in our Liverpool team but they also have to defend themselves. The game has grown. I enjoy every moment. I am a player who likes to have the ball and I hope I make good decisions that help the team, not only defensively but also offensively.
“We have Alisson, who isn’t afraid to pick a pass. The most important thing is that you do it when you think you can do it, not to be smart about it. If I feel pressured and I sense danger I can tell Alisson to kick the ball in front and we will play for the second ball. We have this diversity, we can mix it up, play it short and long. It is important and it is one of our real strengths.
“We can adapt. Ultimately, you are responsible. If I want the ball and make the mistake, it’s my fault. I don’t want to put myself in this situation if I feel like it’s not going well. Why do it? To look good? Certainly not! “
From Thou Shall Not Pass: The Anatomy of Football’s Center-Half by Leo Moynihan (Bloomsbury, £ 16.99). Available for purchase now.