With all the rightful praise laid on Mohamed Salah during his stunning Premier League campaign to date, it can be entirely too easy to forget that Virgil van Dijk is Liverpool’s most important player. During the Pool Boys’ title-winning season, it was van Dijk that provided the difference at the back, and his injury absence last season contributed to Liverpool’s up-and-down campaign. Even to start this season, van Dijk wasn’t fully back to his world-beating level, and it showed in some of Liverpool’s defensive performances.
Well, van Dijk is back, and he has more help than he’s ever had at the back of Liverpool’s starting XI. Alongside Ibrahima Konaté, the Dutch star had his best performance of the season against Inter Milan in the first leg of the teams’ round of 16 knockout tie. Despite the rest of Liverpool’s squad having something of an adventure in lack of control, the backline pair constantly shut down Inter’s attacks through a mixture of technique, athleticism, and last-gasp tackles. Though Liverpool scored two late goals to take a commanding lead heading back to Anfield, it was Inter’s zero goals and especially its zero shots on target that proved to be the real story on Wednesday.
Liverpool’s center back pair held steady despite a constant onslaught from Inter strikers Edin Džeko and Lautaro Martinez, forcing those two to either attempt to find open spaces to slot passes into or to take them on one-on-one. Neither strategy worked; Džeko found space only off of Trent Alexander-Arnold’s right flank, and was often closed down by Konaté before he could do anything dangerous. Martinez, for his part, will likely have nightmares about trying to take van Dijk one-on-one:
Džeko was also made to feel his age on a similar counter-attack, as van Dijk simply out-accelerated him on a long ball through the air like he was in training:
The dirty secret about Liverpool during this current run of European excellence is that, barring one iconic comeback against Barcelona, it has been the defense, not the heralded attacking trio of Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino, and Salah, that has carried them time and time again. Even though both Firmino and Salah scored on Tuesday, Inter would have likely sealed it up much earlier if not for van Dijk’s solidity and Konaté’s full-throttle aggression (by my count, he had three shot-saving tackles at full speed, and one clearance at the penalty spot).
The pair also shone with the ball at their feet, a necessity under Jürgen Klopp’s system. Inter repeatedly pressed high up the field, in hopes of catching Liverpool’s less skilled players sleeping, but van Dijk and especially Konaté played safe passes with ease, breaking the press and Inter’s spirits in the process. In fact, the closest anyone in the backline came to a press mishap was actually goalkeeper Alisson, who held on to the ball for a beat too long with a charging Alexis Sánchez in his path. He got rid of it in time, but it speaks volumes that it was the goalie, and not the center backs, who most nearly fell prey to Inter’s intensity. The van Dijk-Konaté pair was that calm amidst the chaos.
With the summer addition of Konaté, Liverpool now has three center backs that could start for pretty much any Premier League team (Joël Matip was on the bench on Wednesday). That’s more elite depth than the Pool Boys have had in the center back position during this run, and after a shaky start to his time at the Merseyside, Konaté has given Klopp yet another option to feel safe with. Trusting your relatively inexperienced signing to hold down the fort against the champions of Italy in Italy is as close to a declaration that the manager feels his player is ready, and Konaté paid that trust off in full. He’s just 22, and looks like an elite defender in the making.
And now, thanks to those twin pillars at the back, Liverpool gets to return home, to the place where it rarely loses in Europe, and with a two goal lead. Inter is still a great team, and the way that the nerazzurri dominated proceedings in the second half should give them hope for their own iconic Anfield comeback. If van Dijk and either Konaté or Matip play like they did on Wednesday, though, it won’t really matter how much control Inter imposes on the midfield, or how many times Džeko and Martinez find themselves seemingly with acres of space to run into. They will, more often than not, be met there by two large red jerseys, ready to thwart yet another foray into dangerous positions. That’s how Liverpool wins, and Wednesday’s showing looks to be just an introduction into what its defense can do when it’s fully loaded up.