Would Van Dijk solve Liverpool’s set-piece defence problem?
Accurately judging centre-backs is hard – possible, for some more than others, but hard. To make things – in the scope of the Virgil van Dijk transfer – even harder, a large part of Liverpool’s defensive problems are systematic, rather than mainly down to the individual defenders.
The Double Pivot podcast said as much, falling to the conclusion that, at the very least, Van Dijk would be a big help for Liverpool’s problems defending set pieces.
Liverpool, famously, is bad at defending set pieces and Van Dijk, famously, is good in the air. He’s won 74% of his aerial duels this year, 76% last year and 74% again the season before.
But most aerial duels aren’t anything to do with set-pieces.
The set-piece aerial duels that matter are in the box and, on an individual level, aerial duels in the box are surprisingly rare. There wasn’t a single player in the league who fought in 50 aerial duels in their own box last season, and only eight competed in more than 30. It can often be less than one per game, even for centre-backs.
Though Van Dijk’s aerial duel win rate is high, this season he actually has a better rate in the opposition box (77%) than defending in his own (56%).
This success rate for aerial duels in his own box is actually lower than his past two seasons, 63% in 16/17 and 69% in 15/16.
These are small samples we’re dealing with (42, 27, and 18 so far this season), but over the two-and-a-half seasons, this is 56 from 87, or 64%. This is decent. Old-school football types Wes Morgan and Ryan Shawcross both made 63% in the same period.
Dejan Lovren has 69%. Stretch back to include 14/15, his first season at Liverpool, and his success rate is still 69%.
These are still relatively small samples though, between 50 and 100 for each player. Lovren’s season-to-season percentage at Liverpool has jumped from 68% to 100% to 62% to 44% so far this term.
It’s difficult to make sense of, considering that he’s been at Liverpool in each of those seasons. What’s more, Klopp was at Liverpool for all of this time, barring the first few months of 2015/16.
Joel Matip’s aerial duel win rate in his own box is a little less (and a smaller sample), but is still decent at 65%.
It’s possible that – in terms of Liverpool’s set piece defence – Van Dijk might not offer a significant improvement over Klopp’s existing starters in individual duels (though you could argue that Liverpool could do with more or better communication in these situations, which the Dutchman might bring to the table).
Here’s where the picture of Van Dijk’s aerial prowess comes from. In aerial duels that are neither in his box nor the opponents, he wins 81% of them (during his spell in English football). Lovren’s rate over the same period is 71%.
However, aerial duels around the rest of the pitch require a slightly different skill-set to defensive aerial duels inside a player’s own 18-yard box.
Height, strength, balance, and judging the flight of the ball are all still key assets, but in between the two areas, the ball is often coming from in front of the defender, in their eyeline.
Aerial duels in the box more often come from corners or deep and wide free-kicks, where the defender’s attention is split between where the ball is and where the player they need to mark is.
It’s a huge test of their awareness of their surroundings and is why players like Matip and Lovren – neither of whom strike as old-school head ‘n’ hoof centre-halves – are able to have such a good win rate.
So, will Van Dijk solve Liverpool’s set-piece defence problem? Maybe not as much as people think.
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