Lionel Messi’s Argentina ultimately beat Virgil van Dijk’s Netherlands side. But the forward got one thing wrong, and Jürgen Klopp and Liverpool should take note.
It was a sportswasher’s dream. Lionel Messi, the best player of all time, up against Virgil van Dijk, somehow appearing at his first ever World Cup and vying to be in the conversation when it comes to the best defenders in history. A pulsating contest, ultimately going all the way to penalties. This is exactly why Qatar funnelled billions into hosting the tournament.
Things ultimately followed the script, with Messi emerging victorious. How much of a triumph it would be for the Gulf state if they hosted the World Cup where the Argentinian maestro finally claimed football’s biggest prize, cementing his legacy for good. But Van Dijk and the Netherlands certainly put up a good fight.
Much of that fight was contained to the last 10 minutes of regulation time, when Louis van Gaal’s side overturned a two-goal deficit to force extra time. Back at Liverpool, Jürgen Klopp might perhaps have been paying particular attention to this frantic period.
If he was, he would have noticed a rather unusual new role for his centre-back. Desperately chasing the game, the Netherlands sent Van Dijk up to join the attack and act as an auxiliary centre-forward.
The Liverpool defender did not find the net — had the penalty shootout ended differently, hero status would have been reserved for Wout Weghorst, who came off the bench to score both of the late goals. But the former Burnley man undoubtedly benefited from the chaos caused by Van Dijk’s colossal, imposing presence in the opposition box.
Usually reserved for intimidating attackers, his looming stature proved just as capable of terrifying defenders. With an aerial duel win rate even Aleksandar Mitrović would be envious of (76 per cent versus 53 per cent this season), Van Dijk required constant attention in the box, and that certainly played a part in freeing up some room for the similarly imposing Weghorst.
It’s fair to say that Messi was unimpressed. It was a tempestuous game from start to finish, exploding into ugly scenes as the contest reached its climax, and there appeared to be particular animosity between Argentina’s talisman and Van Gaal. He gave a scathing assessment of the 71-year-old’s tactics (ESPN):
“Van Gaal sells that he plays good football and then he puts forwards in the box and starts throwing long balls. We deserved to go through and that’s what happened.”
Of course, Van Gaal threw more than forwards in the box, committing Van Dijk to the attack too. It’s safe to assume Messi was similarly unimpressed by that development. But while it is hard to argue that his side ultimately deserved to prevail, it’s also true that Argentina completely went to pieces when presented with this aerial bombardment.
It was unmistakable: an old-school Plan B, a throwing of the proverbial kitchen sink. And it begged the question of why this kind of approach has largely disappeared from the sport. Naturally, the tactical nuances at international level are significantly decreased when compared to the club game, but the psychological effects are the same: at any level, chucking Van Dijk into the box will induce panic, which in turn helps prise open a route to goal.
Nobody is suggesting that Klopp should start fielding Van Dijk as a striker from the outset. Just as the Netherlands only turned to it as a last resort, it’s merely something which Liverpool should keep in their back pocket. But Van Gaal used the tactic for a good 20 minutes or so, once factoring in the added time — something which has only really been seen at Anfield in stoppage time, usually after a set piece, could become a far more regular occurrence.
There is also a transfer lesson for Klopp and the Liverpool recruitment team. For all Van Dijk’s effort, it was Weghorst who turned the game, much to Messi’s distaste. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. It begged the question of who could have that kind of effect at Anfield.
It used to be Divock Origi. But with him gone, there is not really anyone on the Liverpool roster who offers Klopp a genuinely new dimension. Plenty of world-class attackers are on hand, but some of the available changes are more or less like-for-like: Diogo Jota for Luis Díaz, for instance.
Roberto Firmino and Darwin Núñez are different kinds of forward, and the Uruguayan can offer something of a bench impact, but he is surely the long-term starter for Liverpool. That leaves Klopp to call the Brazilian from the bench — his nuanced, subtle brilliance does not fit with the formula of throwing everything at an opponent late in the game.
And so, whatever Messi may think about it, Klopp would do well to put together a genuine Plan B at Liverpool. Van Dijk has proved that he can play a part in that, but a transfer is also needed — it might not be fashionable, but the Netherlands proved the value of an old-fashioned Hail Mary.