Equal Time: VVD character assassination after Champions League defeat ridiculous
Background photo: CC BY-SA 3.0
The republic designed by the American founding fathers was intended to be a balanced system. The executive, legislative and judiciary retain equal powers that are designed to keep everything in check and protect the nation’s democracy if one branch is exposed. That’s not unlike a good XI in football where the attack, defence and midfield thrive when well-balanced.
Despite that balance of power, it’s the president who takes all the credit or blame in each successive administration. He plays an important role but isn’t a dictator. The legislative does the heavy lifting. The Supreme Court makes sure everyone plays by the rules. The President presides.
Again, it’s the same in football whether a manager or star player draws the media and supporter’s focus even though there are [usually] eleven men on the pitch. At Barcelona, Lionel Messi is that star. At Liverpool, a much more balanced team, it was Mo Salah last season and Virgil van Dijk this. Both Messi and Van Dijk play integral roles in their squads. No one can imagine Barca or Liverpool could be nearly as effective without them. When things go wrong, they’re the ones who critics attack.
Following their 3-0 first-leg victory over the Merseysiders at the Nou Camp, things obviously aren’t going too wrong for Messi and the Blaugrana. The diminutive No.10 put the game to bed with a brace after the 70th minute.
But things do go wrong for the Catalans. They failed to reach the Champions League semifinals in the past three campaigns. The collapse against Roma was particularly spectacular. This term, they finally broke through. Most observers can only sing Messi’s praises at the moment but there are some who, as they might with Donald Trump, question whether he has too much power within the team and how that will affect the club when he’s gone.
On the other hand, all the blame for Messi’s success is being laid at Virgil van Dijk’s feet. Anointed as PFA Player of the Year in England, the defender’s consistency, composure and leadership transformed the Reds from a one-way attacking squad into a measured side difficult to stop or expose.
If you watched the first leg, you know the 3-0 scoreline flatters Barcelona. They scored early, through Luis Suarez on 26 minutes, but the Merseysiders were the better team for the 45 minutes between the beginning and end. James Milner missed three gilded chances. Marc-Andre ter Stegen also had to stop Mo Salah from replicating his recent worldie against Chelsea. The Egyptian then found the post in the dying minutes with Ter Stegen and two defenders guarding the line. One blocked Roberto Firmino’s initial shot. Sadio Mane fluffed an early chance in the bargain.
On the attacking end, Liverpool can only blame themselves for not taking those chances. On the defensive end, however, Van Dijk is the last person to blame rather than the first.
Suarez’s goal began with Sergi Roberto’s diagonal from midfield that Jordi Alba then crossed in from the left flank for the Uruguayan. He stuck out a leg to deflect the ball past Alisson Becker, the very thing Mane failed to do at the opposite end. The Senegalese skied the ball over the bar instead.
The point here is that Barcelona circumvented Van Dijk in attacking the Liverpool box. Alba was Joe Gomez’s responsibility. The right-back made his first appearance for the club since suffering a fractured leg in December. Manager Jurgen Klopp inserted him for PFA Young Player of the Year nominee Trent Alexander-Arnold specifically to stop Alba. It took less than a half-hour for the attack-minded left-back to shake his man long enough to create a goal.
Rio Ferdinand blames Van Dijk for this goal because Suarez cuts between him and Matip. Suarez is running away from the Dutchman, however. He cannot possibly cover the space on the other side of the right post where Suarez is headed. Matip is the one who can be on the right side of the forward. He must read where the ball is going and drop down to cut out the cross rather than watch Messi retreat into midfield where Fabinho is picking him up.
To be fair to Matip, Suarez is behind him but expecting Van Dijk to cover ground to Matip's right is asking too much. It places the Reds rearguard in complete disarray. If he failed to warn his partner of the danger, that would be "criminal". Yet no one, not even Rio from his glass studio, is claiming he didn't.
There is an argument that Van Dijk plays Suarez onside. He is a step or two deeper than Matip, Gomez and Andrew Robertson. Again, VVD must be shouting to Matip about the danger and the Belgian should react. Instead, he is looking in the wrong direction.
Taking all the blame for Suarez's goal when his partner wasn't paying attention is like faulting Barack Obama for the financial crisis he inherited from George W Bush. Neither man covered himself in glory but the chaos was already in play when they arrived on the scene. In Van Dijk's case, he is the PFA Player of the Year, not the Perfect Player of the Year. That doesn't go out the window because he failed to stop Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi singlehandedly.
Barca’s second goal also came from Barcelona's left even though Messi was on hand to clean up and Van Dijk appeared embarrassingly exposed behind him. In truth, he wasn’t.
Suarez found space away from Matip [!] to ring a shot off the bar. The fact he chose to go near-post is what caused pundits to blame VVD for not sticking with Messi. As a defender in that situation, however, you leave the goalkeeper to cover that side of the goal and look for the attacker to target the far post. Then you are in a position to clear any rebound. Instead, the ball fell directly onto the Argentine’s foot for his 599th club goal. With that many, you’d think he already enjoyed sufficient luck for several careers.
Messi’s 600th then arrived from a brilliant free-kick which, again, had nothing to do with Van Dijk’s play.
If you’re looking to honestly analyse Liverpool’s errors at the Nou Camp, first and foremost you must target the profligate attack. Barcelona’s defence was far worse than Liverpool’s but James Milner allowed Marc-Andre ter Stegen to make some easy saves and Sadio Mane let him off the hook completely.
When you turn your attention to the Reds’ rearguard, criticism should first be allocated to Gomez, who couldn’t handle Alba, and second to Matip who was twice out of position when Suarez appeared on the right post. It bears remembering that the Uruguayan brought just the one Champions League goal coming to the party. After looking rather pathetic throughout Barcelona’s European nights, he found motivation against his old club. Matip and Gomez lacked the pride to stop him in the manner that Naby Keita, Jordan Henderson and Fabinho embarrassed Philippe Coutinho.
Next, you should ask a question of Jurgen Klopp. It’s a given that both Barcelona’s forward line and Alba at left back are not ones to participate in their own third. Why not keep the energetic, match-fresh, nine assist man, Trent Alexander-Arnold in the lineup to punish them at the opposite end? It’s a given he’ll be doing so next week at Anfield. Too little, too late.
Then and only then should you look in Virgil van Dijk's direction.