Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has overseen a remarkable defensive improvement in 2018 and a big catalyst for that has been the signings of Virgil Van Dijk and Alisson Becker. The duo both cost what were world record fees for their positions at the time, with the £75m paid for Van Dijk still the highest, and questions were asked about whether the club were paying too much. Nobody is querying that now.
Supporters all over the world were calling for Klopp to sign a new goalkeeper when he arrived back in 2015, but he handed a new and improved contract to Simon Mignolet in January 2016, which was met with confusion my many fans. However, the German did answer the calls to bring in a new stopper the following Summer when he spent a modest fee to sign compatriot Loris Karius from former club Mainz. But things didn’t go well initially for the former Manchester City trainee and he lost his place back to the Belgian after some costly errors, most notably in the 4-3 loss against Bournemouth.
Karius was handed the gloves for the Champions League campaign last season and also regained his place in the Premier League side after Mignolet cost points with some poor performances, particularly against Arsenal in the 3-3 draw, and was installed as the number one keeper in the squad. Things were improving for him over the course of the second half of the campaign and it looked like Klopp might well have found himself a potential long-term option. But, as we all know so well, Karius had a meltdown in the Champions League final against Real Madrid and conceded two very soft goals after some very basic errors. That lost the faith of some of his team-mates and his social media account helped to do further damage with the squad. Klopp once again needed to look for a new goalkeeper.
The name of Alisson Becker had started to be linked with Liverpool after some impressive performances for Roma and Brazil saw him receive rave reviews from scouts along with the media. He was a key factor in the Italian side reaching the Champions League semi-finals, where they lost to Liverpool, and he was high on the list of targets for the club. Atletico Madrid stopper Jan Oblak was touted as the other possible target, but signing him would have required a huge outlay thanks to the way contracts operate in Spanish football. If Roma were prepared to do a deal for Alisson, then Liverpool were certainly going to be interested – but the Reds weren’t the only ones sniffing around. Chelsea and Real Madrid were both being heavily linked with bids and so Klopp would need to again work his magic to get his man signed. And he did, with an initial bid worth around £60m turned down, before a second offer of around £67m was accepted by the Serie A club. Alisson was keen to make the move and things were wrapped up quickly.
The situation was not so straightforward when Van Dijk arrived at Anfield. Klopp would have preferred to have got the Dutchman in during the Summer of 2017, but Southampton made an accusation of an alleged illegal approach to their captain and Liverpool decided to release a statement stating that no bid would be forthcoming. Van Dijk had made it clear that he wanted to leave St Mary’s, despite signing a new contract with them just over a year before and he all but said he had his heart set on moving to Merseyside. He started last season with the south coast club, but Klopp finally got his man when Southampton accepted a £75m offer at Christmas and he arrived in January – just in time to make his debut against Everton in the FA Cup. He became an instant hero thanks to a late headed winner in front of The Kop. The former Celtic man quickly settled into his new side and looked to have brought a calming influence to those around him, such was the instant improvement of the Liverpool defence. His impact on his team-mates has been huge and he has shown that you don’t need the armband to be a leader.
Something that should be pointed out, and credit given to Klopp, is that these two world-class talents had their hearts set on moving to Anfield from the start. Their heads were not turned by lucrative offers from Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United in the case of Van Dijk and Chelsea and Real Madrid for Alisson. In years gone by, there would have been little chance that players of their reputation and calibre would have turned down those clubs to join Liverpool. It is a clear measure of just how much pull the former Borussia Dortmund boss has – he sweeps you up in his desire and will to win and the players want to play and win for him. He has given Liverpool a magnetic pull to some superb talents – and some of them are signing lengthy contract extensions thanks to the belief he instills into them. We may well see Alisson and Van Dijk putting pen to paper on new deals down the line – because they could certainly be seen as long-term options for their roles in the team.
The impact the duo have had on the team this season can be highlighted in one statistic alone – only six goals have been conceded in the Premier League so far this season, which is the lowest by three. At the same stage last year, Liverpool had conceded twenty. Another point which highlights how well the team have done at the back so far during this campaign is the number of clean sheets kept – ten, which is the highest in the division. Only six had been kept at this point last season. Alisson also leads the way in terms of individual clean sheets and saves per goal – and he has also been key to a few goals being scored thanks to his quick thinking. The Brazilian has been a huge upgrade on the goalkeepers previously at the club and some are already asking whether he’s the best the club has had ever had in the position. It’s a fair shout.
Not all the credit can go the duo, however, with Andy Robertson and Joe Gomez also playing key roles over the course of 2018. The duo have become superb defenders in their own right and have made some crucial blocks, tackles and clearances to keep the goals against column down. Trent Alexander-Arnold, Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip have also played their part in the defensive improvements seen at Liverpool over 2018 and will be looking to keep improving into 2019 and the second half of the campaign.
Klopp has put together a superb defensive unit and the future is looking very bright ineed.