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Saturday, April 13, 2024

How Virgil van Dijk used LeBron James advice to return to his towering best

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Virgil van Dijk would like to retract his words. In the glow of glory, in the Wembley dressing room after he had provided the definition of leading by example, when his extra-time header had earned a makeshift Liverpool side the Carabao Cup, as he prepared to dance with teenaged teammates, he had declared: “They thought I was finished.”

If the sense was that Van Dijk felt he had proved his critics wrong, a few weeks later he averred: “I shouldn’t have said that.” His extended answer was more nuanced. If Liverpool’s 2022-23 represented alarming regression, Van Dijk’s season was mixed; not disastrous but not reaching his own high levels regularly enough. Coupled with the age of a defender who turned 32 in the summer and the cruciate ligament injury that meant he missed virtually all of the 2021-22 season, it added to a theory he was in understandable decline.

Yet now Van Dijk is resurgent, a status as a towering figure apparent when he earned Liverpool their first trophy under his captaincy. But his influence stretches beyond that. He has assumed his old status as the best centre-back in the Premier League. He is a potential Player of the Year.

He isn’t finished. Nor, though, does Van Dijk want to wage war on the doubters. One sentence at Wembley did not mean that.

(Getty Images)

He said: “That was part of the emotion coming out of me because there were so many emotions going through my whole body that day. Last season was disappointing. Not disappointing in a way that I was bad, I didn’t feel like that at all, I was just below my standards and the consistency wasn’t there that I have had and set for myself in each and every game. I fully understand the noise that came with it but I am a human being and not immune to any of that, so there was a bit of emotion that day but I shouldn’t have said that [to camera].”

On and off the pitch, Van Dijk excels at looking unflustered. He is often the laidback colossus, which has helped the inexperienced and the understudies who sometimes flank him in new-look defences, but even he can be affected.

“Maybe in one way it was good to say because it gets it out of me, but I don’t like noise around me,” the Dutchman said. “Positive noise is fine but I just want to be my best version on the pitch and be the best I can because things have been going very well this season personally and big credit to all the team given the obstacles we had overcome. I know I play a big part in that, I know I had to step up and I did and I think after the little change we did last March [the tactical shift that helped Liverpool end the season well] I am feeling a lot better. The break helped massively in the summer and that brought me into good shape.”

That is aided by having his own physio and chef; they are reasons why Van Dijk has started the most games, 32, for Liverpool this season. “Listening to your body and managing yourself, you cannot put a price on that,” said the £75m centre-back. If there are ways in which Van Dijk has returned to his best, there are others where he has evolved. “Confidence is a big driver when you play the game but in general I think I have made big steps in possession,” he said. “The manager said the other day that it is not just as simple as wearing the armband and I think there are a lot of things that just clicked again. The responsibility has helped but I made steps in possession, steps in the way I defend and I really enjoy that.”

Van Dijk scored the winner as Liverpool defeated Chelsea at Wembley

(The FA via Getty Images)

His talismanic status has brought high-profile admirers. The LA Lakers basketball player LeBron James has a stake in Liverpool. Two giants of their respective sports have collaborated on streetwear and traded best wishes. “We have had messages passed between us,” Van Dijk said. “I saw the billboard this week and it is amazing.”

His sporting inspirations extend far beyond other central defenders and he explained: “I like basketball. Funnily enough, I look at all the top athletes at the highest level because I feel like they all have a big role, either as a big role model or for their team and community, and there are so many things you can learn. The way they conduct themselves on the pitch or on court, also what they do in order to be great. There is LeBron, [Novak] Djokovic, Roger Federer, Tom Brady: I could name so many. I like to listen to these guys and learn with how they dealt being at the top and dealing with difficult moments but also good moments.”

‘Strive for greatness’, the name of James’ documentary, serves as a motto for Van Dijk as well. “That phrase that he uses is perfect,” he said. “I want to achieve the most I can in life and get the maximum out of myself, the team and the position we are in. Every season is a challenge but we are in a special situation.” Going for the quadruple, chasing perfection, a footballer with unfinished business is striving for his kind of greatness.

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