Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 7 December 2019

Virgil van Dijk not getting 'carried away' after Liverpool beat Manchester City to increase advantage in title race

Eight-point lead but no clean sheets at Anfield is testament to new attacking approach

Virgil van Dijk was considering the gap that has opened up between the European and English champions. The Dutchman brings the same calm to his comments as he does to his defending. It is not in his nature to get over-excited.

But there is a matter-of-fact honesty to him and he conceded: “We are in a very good situation. That is something we can’t deny. We know the season is too long to properly celebrate that we are nine points ahead [of Manchester City] and we won’t. The mentality is that we all have in our minds that we shouldn’t get carried away.”

Liverpool’s immediate past acts as a cautionary tale, even if Van Dijk is not scarred by it. They led City by seven points last January and ended up one behind them. The knowledge that Liverpool posted a record points tally for a runner-up, 97, meant he does not look back in anger at a near-miss.

“We did everything possible,” he added. “We shouldn’t have any regrets from last year. They were just outstanding. We kept pushing them and they kept pushing us and you have to respect that.”

By equalling the best start in the history of the English top flight, Liverpool have already improved upon one element of last season. “We took a lot of experience last year,” Van Dijk said. “Good things, but also some things we should have done better.”

Three points only eluded them eight times then, but seven of those games were drawn in a season when City drew just twice. Three stalemates came at a cost.

If analysis of Liverpool’s early-season efforts suggests they have declined in one respect – defensively – perhaps that is a consequence of a determination not to draw.

Bernardo Silva’s well-taken goal means Liverpool are still awaiting their first clean sheet at Anfield since May. And yet Sunday’s 3-1 win was the antithesis of last season’s goalless game with City. That was stripped of drama for large periods of the match; this time around it was a constant. In October 2018, City had six shots at Anfield. In November 2019, they had 18.

By making matches more open, Liverpool are placing an emphasis on outscoring opponents, rather than shutting them out. They have altered the equation between risk and reward. In the process, they have kept Van Dijk and his cohorts at the back busy.

“Defensively, we did well,” the Dutchman said. “We don’t need to overstate that but we had a lot of interceptions and a lot of blocks.”

Perhaps the logic is that a team with arguably the finest goalkeeper (Alisson), centre-back (Van Dijk), defensive midfielder (Fabinho) and pair of full-backs (Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold) in the league can afford to adopt a more offensive approach. “Our full-backs were very important again attackingly,” Van Dijk said.

When Alexander-Arnold started to struggle, as Raheem Sterling began to get the better of him of in the final quarter, Jurgen Klopp introduced the more defensive Joe Gomez. After the progressiveness came the pragmatism. “In the end you have to drop deep to make sure we aren’t going to drop points,” Van Dijk said.

That resourcefulness and adaptability have underpinned their start. Liverpool have been pursuing equalisers and winners in the closing stages against Leicester, Manchester United and Aston Villa in recent weeks.

This time the changes – significantly, given their high-intensity brand of football, Klopp has made three in all 12 league games – were defensive. Liverpool held on to their lead. They will hope it proves a microcosm of the season, as City’s chances were dented. As Van Dijk noted: “It is a proper knock for them.”

Updated: November 12, 2019 12:40 PM

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