Even a player lauded as the complete modern centre-half appreciates all aspects of life in the position, whether that be the aesthetic side of the game or the more agricultural. Virgil van Dijk and last-gasp, back-to-the-wall defending don’t seem obvious bedfellows, but he rejects the notion that his modern brethren don’t embrace it.
“I think it happens to us quite a lot,” he says. “Look at the 2019 Champions League final. We can be a goal up and the opponent is trying to do everything possible to try and win the game. We had our backs against the wall in Madrid against Tottenham and yes, it is a different situation to what we normally have, because yes, we are usually attacking and pressing forward, but there are times when we have to drop and we have to organise, and you must take joy in that part of the game.
“You want to push forward, lose the ball high, but win it high too, and be on the front foot. I want to come off the pitch sort of thinking I can play again. That would be the perfect game, because it would mean we’ve all been perfect, we’ve all done our job; but I am definitely taking enjoyment from those harder moments.
“That season, in the group stages, we played Napoli needing to win. We were 1–0 up and really under pressure at the end, but Allison made that sick save, knowing, ‘One goal, we are out.’ When Allison made that save, I went to him and celebrated with him like he had scored! It feels so important and helped us win the Champions League. I enjoy both sides. I prefer to be comfortable though. That’s just me, maybe.
“Look at the semi-final second-leg against Barcelona. Three goals down but then four up, knowing one goal, and we were out. It was incredible to keep a clean sheet that night against Lionel Messi, an individual whom I think is the best to ever play the game. ’
Tactical fouls come from full-back and midfielders when the lines in front of the central defenders are broken. Today the centre-half is urged to “stay on your feet”, told not to commit to tackles, but as the last line of defence, and with onlookers who miss the old rough and tumble of a centre-half’s game, are there still tricks of the trade that make fans and forwards alike wince?
“First of all, we have a hundred cameras on us!” says Van Dijk. “For me personally, I don’t like to hurt people. I just want to play and win fair. That’s who I am. I am not a guy who will try to win with different tactics.
“Some people suggest I make the game look easy, but trust me, every game is very tough. We play against world-class strikers, very physical strikers, and never am I thinking, ‘This is easy.’ Maybe though, I want my opponent to think I am. Look at Roger Federer. If you see him play tennis, you think he doesn’t sweat. Mentally, that must be so tough for his opponent, who will think he’s not trying.
“Sometimes I think like that. Try to get into the head of the opponent, not by talking to him, not by kicking him, but trying to make him think that if he is going to play well or score today, he’s going to have to step up. Yes, you have to be confident in your own ability, otherwise people will walk all over you. There are other ways to win games; you don’t have to kick or curse people out.”
The modern centre-half who wants to play is still met with a degree of scepticism. An English centre-half getting the ball, looking for a pass, looking to get that pass back, get things moving forward is smiled at, politely applauded, but too often thoughts rush to a worst-case scenario. “He’s a mistake waiting to happen,” comes the murmur.
Van Dijk isn’t having it though. “It’s more important today, the position. A lot more. Nowadays playing out from the back is a huge thing, especially for teams who like to be in possession of the ball. The bigger teams in world football want to have players who are comfortable on the ball, even in their own box and around it. Being under pressure, players who get on the ball can be a massive help.
“Back in the day, maybe centre-halves were expected to not get involved. Give the ball to the midfielders and then your task is to simply make sure the defensive organisation is there and to defend the goal. Now everyone is getting involved. You still have to do those duties, but there is so much more asked of defenders and the position has developed. The full-back position is changing too, they are almost like wingers in our Liverpool team but they must also do their defending. The game has developed. I enjoy every bit of it. I am a player who likes to have the ball and hopefully I make good decisions that help the team, not only defensively but offensively too.
“We have Alisson, who is not afraid to pick a pass. The most important thing is that you do it when you think you can do it, not to be clever for the sake of it. If I am feeling under pressure and I sense danger, I can tell Alisson to kick the ball up front and we will play for the second ball. We have that diversity, we can mix it up, playing it short and long. That is important and one of our real strengths.
“We can adapt. At the end of the day, you are responsible. If I want the ball, and I make the mistake, it is my fault. I don’t want to put myself in that situation if I sense it isn’t going to go right. Why do it? To look good? No way!”