Brendan Crossan: Virgil van Dijk can learn a lot about the art of defending from Gerard Pique
MAYBE the PFA’s Player of the Year award went to Virgil van Dijk’s head a little bit. Maybe praise of that lofty kind can actually take the edge of your performance.
The big Dutchman postures a little too much on the field.
He also points a lot. Telling his team-mates where to go and what to do. He is Liverpool’s chief conductor of on-field affairs.
Sometimes you want him to stop pointing here, there and everywhere and concentrate on his own position on the field.
Of course, let’s be clear here: in football terms van Dijk is an absolute thoroughbred.
Few defenders in the modern game possess the kind of recovery that van Dijk has.
Watching how he managed to deal with marking two Tottenham players bearing down on goal before forcing Moussa Sissoko to shoot over Liverpool’s crossbar on his weaker side to protect his side’s precious lead in the game was one of the highlights of the season.
Defensive play like that is truly an art form – just as brilliant and exhilarating as a 25-yard shot nestling in the top corner of the net.
The English Premier League has always been a bit of an illusion though.
The overall quality has never quite lived up to the hype. There are leagues within leagues in the EPL, with the gap between the really top teams and the rest getting more pronounced, notwithstanding the freak season Leicester City climbed the mountain and won the title.
Champions-elect Man City and Liverpool are a massive 20 and 21 points ahead of third-placed Spurs.
Spurs, Arsenal, Chelsea and Man United are around the same level and the current league table suggests as much with just five points between third-placed Spurs and sixth-placed Man United.
After that you can throw a blanket over the rest as they fight for the security of mid-table.
The point is that with each passing season the genuine tests for the top teams and the top players are getting fewer and fewer.
For the majority of their domestic season, defenders like van Dijk aren’t over-extended.
That’s why when the big tests emerge in the season a magnifying glass is thrust over every aspect of a top player’s performance.
Because it is in those exacting conditions where they are judged. Not against Huddersfield. Or Brighton. Or Burnley.
But in a Champions League semi-finals against Barcelona at Camp Nou.
For a player of van Dijk’s standing, his performance in the Catalan capital on Wednesday night was desperately disappointing.
He was at fault for Barcelona’s opening goal and his defensive instincts were slow to kick in for the home side’s second goal.
If Barcelona progress to the final next week van Dijk will need to shoulder much of the blame.
Luis Suarez’s movement to get across van Dijk and re-direct Jordi Alba’s driven low cross into Liverpool’s goal was typical of the Uruguayan - but the Dutchman’s lack of urgency and failure to sense danger, in a Champions League semi-final, with the game scoreless, was staggering.
Defenders of van Dijk will point to his peerless performances for Liverpool this season and to judge him on a couple of lapses is harsh.
But it’s at the higher altitude where the really great players perform.
When Barcelona counter-attacked, from a Liverpool corner, in stoppage-time Gerard Pique had galloped the length of the field to give Lionel Messi an option.
As it turned out, Messi passed to Ousmane Dembele who scuffed his gift-wrapped chance and kept Liverpool on life-support at 3-0 ahead of the second leg.
You can see in the footage Sadio Mane busting a gut to get back to try and prevent a fourth goal for Barca.
Van Dijk had travelled up for the Liverpool corner but he didn’t show the same appetite as Mane to get back.
His errors are the reasons why Liverpool won’t reach this season’s Champions League decider.
There is undoubtedly still growth in van Dijk’s game. He is still only 27. Central defenders, generally, don’t reach their peak until 30 or 31.
To suggest van Dijk is the best defender in the world is premature and no doubt he can learn from the the defensive master-class Pique delivered in the Barcelona jersey on Wednesday night.
The Spanish international has been the best defender over the course of the season and has rightly earned the world-class tag ever since he became a world champion in 2010.
Moreover, he’s had to form defensive partnerships with the erratic Samuel Umtiti in recent seasons and for a long time played alongside recognised defensive midfielder Javier Mascherano who always seemed a stop-gap option.
The current Barcelona side is by no means a vintage one with Liverpool’s brilliant high press exposing the Catalans' ability to retain possession under pressure.
As a consequence, the Barcelona defence was over-worked and yet Pique’s positional sense, interceptions and cajoling those around him were exceptional.
After Carles Puyol left the stage, Pique went through a difficult phase in his career where he wanted to be the ball-playing central defender and didn’t always embrace the defensive challenges he faced and was therefore exposed on too many occasions.
However, over the past couple of seasons, Pique looks like a defender who now loves the ugliness of defending, thrives in one-on-one situations and leads the entire back-line, and yet still retains that untouchable quality of playing his way out of defence.
At 32, Pique is at his absolute peak. Next to Messi, Pique is Barcelona’s most important player.
Van Dijk should watch a re-run of Wednesday night’s first leg and study Pique’s performance.
He’ll realise he still has some road to travel before staking a claim of being the best defender in the world.