The game was boring, they’ll say. The game was dull. The game was putrid. The game was sloppy.
Boring is just the way Virgil Van Dijk likes it.
The Dutch defender was named Man of the Match as he led the back line for Liverpool in a 2-0 win over Tottenham in the Champions League final to secure the club’s sixth European crown. The game was punctuated by bad passing, poor build-up play, and a general lack of attacking quality, but van Dijk was at the thick of all that, locking down the Tottenham attack and leaving Christian Eriksen, Heung-Min Son, and Harry Kane firmly in his pocket.
Van Dijk donned the Champions League winner’s medal having led the Liverpool defense in one of the most spectacular individual defensive seasons you’ll see. Liverpool conceded just 27 goals across the 38 Premier League matches – not only the best in the English top flight, but the best domestic defensive record in Europe’s top five leagues. The Reds conceded just five goals in the Champions League knockout stages against the likes of Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Porto, and Tottenham Hotspur, with three of those coming in the first-leg defeat at the Camp Nou.
Through it all, van Dijk was a model of consistency and durability, accumulating an enormous 4,465 minutes across all competitions. He missed just three matches all year, sitting out the first leg against Bayern Munich due to yellow card accumulation and resting for the pair of domestic Cup losses to Wolves and Chelsea. Otherwise, van Dijk played every single minute of every single match throughout the entire season, racking up 26 clean sheets in his 50 appearances on the pitch – over half the games he played Liverpool did not concede.
Nevertheless, those are team achievements. That’s where the most unbelievable stat comes into play, proof of van Dijk’s dominance on the season. The 27-year-old did has not been dribbled past in a staggering 64 straight matches, completing 52 straight tackles this season without fail, a perfect personal defensive record.
In fact, as Opta confirms, van Dijk has not been dribbled past since a 5-0 win over Porto in February of 2018, his first Champions League appearance for the club.
All these glittering facts and figures culminate together to make one glaringly blatant argument that might not seem so blatant after all: Virgil van Dijk should be a serious contender for the Ballon d’Or come December, with a real chance to be the first defender to win the award since Fabio Cannavaro in 2006 and only the fourth defender to win the award in its history.
Obviously there’s plenty of time to go. Van Dijk will likely be in the lineup for the Netherlands as they take on England in just five days in the Nations League semifinals, and should he lock it down in Portugal, a solid performance on a short turnaround would be yet another feather in his cap this season. If Liverpool starts next Premier League as expected title contenders, van Dijk could even be the frontrunner for the prestigious award headed into the fall.
Still, a modest van Dijk just minutes off winning the Champions League doesn’t think he is the best player in the world. “I think [Barcelona striker Lionel] Messi is the best player in the world,” van Dijk said in his post-match press conference. “I think he deserves [the Ballon d’Or] as long as he plays. The Ballon d’Or isn’t something I think about. But if it happens by any chance then obviously I will take it. I don’t think there is any case. I think he is still the best player in the world. Whether he’s in the final or not.”
Luka Modric won last year’s Ballon d’Or essentially on the back of a fabulous World Cup performance, despite the fact Real Madrid suffered through a dismal October of La Liga play, dropping to ninth in the table and falling out of the La Liga title race. Van Dijk may not have that much room for error in the calendar year, given his status as a defender always puts him behind the curve of the flashier goalscorers and even midfield maestros like Modric. Still, the Dutchman merits serious consideration and potentially even the trophy should he continue to plod along on this stellar pace.