Liverpool earned 97 points in the Premier League and are preparing for their second Champions League final in a row. That means a lengthy list of standout performances, and perhaps nowhere more so than at the back.
For years now it has felt as though defence is Liverpool’s weak point, but not this season. This season, Liverpool had the stingiest defence in the Premier League, one that according to 538 only gave up chances worth 0.3 expected goals per game.
For many, the reason is obvious: it’s Virgil van Dijk. But he wasn’t alone.
The Liverpool goalkeeper arrived from Roma last summer in a £65M deal and his key saves en route to the final in the Champions League alone likely justify that fee given the windfall the club have earned by making it back there.
In the league, too, he has been a standout, as Liverpool’s 22 goals conceded are the fewest of any team and his 21 clean sheets the most of any goalkeeper. While much of that is down to the team not giving up very many chances, Alisson still outperformed expected goals metrics by more than seven in the league per Understat.
At Manchester City, Ederson—who has somehow been the near-universal choice for Premier League teams of the season—conceded one more goal, earned one fewer clean sheet, and outperformed expected goals against by a little less than three.
Put in an average goalkeeper, and Liverpool aren’t in the final. Put in an average goalkeeper, and Liverpool give up 29 goals in the league rather than 22 and almost certainly don’t pass the 90-point threshold.
Just 20 years old and the new record holder for most assists by a defender in the Premier League with 12. Put those together with his helpers in Europe and he’s up to 16 on the season, and even that’s a number that doesn’t properly convey just how important he was to Liverpool’s attack while being part of the league’s stingiest defence.
Perhaps what speaks to his importance more than those assist numbers are what happened to the team’s attacking fluidity over the winter when Alexander-Arnold struggled with a foot injury, match fitness, and the physical demands of being Liverpool’s first choice right back at just 20 years of age. Without Alexander-Arnold at his best—without two fullbacks at their best—Liverpool lost their width and with it their attacking creativity. And results suffered for it.
For much of the season, Robertson was actually ahead of Alexander-Arnold on the assists front, and the industrious Scot played nearly a thousand minutes more in 2018-19 than his fellow fullback as one of four outfield players—along with Sadio Mané, Mohamed Salah, and Virgil van Dijk—to play more than 4,000 total minutes of football.
Robertson, simply put, was always there. Always fit. Always running hard for 90 minutes week in and week out, and even if his final assists tally fell one short of Alexander-Arnold in the league and three short overall, he was just as important to providing the width and creativity in Klopp’s system—a system that managed to make fullback a more important and perhaps even more glamorous role than it arguably ever has been.
Virgil van Dijk
Speaking of players who were always fit, then, brings us to Van Dijk. He won the Premier League’s Player of the Year award. He won the PFA Player of the Year award. Right now, he’s the best centre half in Europe. And he’s the man who marshals Liverpool’s now robust defence. Add in a few key headed goals and it’s hard to look past him as Liverpool’s defender of the year and perhaps player of the year, too. He’s Virgil van Dijk—and it hardly feels as though more need be said.
The final call, though, is yours. Virgil van Dijk is favourite—and probably a heavy favourite at that—but he wasn’t alone in turning Liverpool’s defence from shaky to stout last season, and the roles others had both at the back and in aiding the attack can’t be overlooked.
Liverpool’s 2018-19 Defender of the Season
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Virgil van Dijk
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