Burton Albion
Manchester City
11:45 AM UTC
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 By Steven Kelly

Scrutiny comes quickly at Virgil van Dijk's expense for Liverpool

The world's most expensive defender, Virgil van Dijk, will have to get used to every tackle and header being exhaustively scrutinised. This will be especially true when he returns to his old club, Southampton, for a match on Sunday.

Liverpool's best result recently was the 4-3 win against leaders Manchester City. They've also had one clean sheet in 2018, a 3-0 win at Huddersfield. The Dutchman did not feature in either.

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He did play in the 1-0 defeat at Swansea, when an attempted headed clearance fell at the feet of goal scorer Alfie Mawson. He also appeared in a defensive debacle against West Brom in which Liverpool exited the FA Cup, then conceded the late penalty that squandered two points against Tottenham last Sunday.

Even if Van Dijk hadn't cost £75 million, any early struggles in a Liverpool shirt would make headlines. A swift return to the club that many believe he treated shabbily during his bid to force a transfer is probably the last thing he wants.

When a big club splashes out on a problem position, people expect immediate validation on that investment in the form of solid defending and clean sheets. Realists knew full well that wasn't going to happen overnight. An expert in defending like Jamie Carragher said as much.

More than any other part of the team, defence is a unit rather than a collection of individuals. That's not to say midfield and attack make it up as they go along, but organisation and discipline feature heavily in defence.

Take the Tottenham match, for example, when all of Liverpool's back four actually played well. It's claimed Van Dijk lost concentration to commit the foul on Erik Lamela in the area, but it was in the 94th minute and many referees wouldn't have given such a soft penalty.

Actually, Jonathan Moss didn't give it at first until overruled by his assistant -- something that is still irking Liverpool fans days later.

Liverpool teammate Dejan Lovren can advise him on a range of subjects this week, such as daunting returns to St Mary's Stadium -- where he's been consistently booed -- and performing well, yet having one mistake ruthlessly punished.

Lovren's attempt at a clearance against Tottenham was adjudged to have kept Harry Kane onside just before the striker won their first penalty, which he subsequently missed. As Dave Usher wrote in his ratings, it's the kind of thing that's haunted the Croatian throughout his Liverpool career.

This is the trouble with defenders and goalkeepers; "almost flawless" is not enough, since your mistake will generally lead to an opposition goal.

The price tag alone put a lot of pressure on Virgil van Dijk, who returns to St Mary's to face former club Southampton this weekend.

Liverpool's backline isn't really helped by Jurgen Klopp's desire to rotate. In previous years, Gerard Houllier and Rafa Benitez would change players game by game but insist on leaving defence alone if they possibly could.

So much depends on partnerships and instinctive familiarity with what another player will do in certain situations. Van Dijk has played on the right and left of central defence, alongside different full-backs and in front of different goalkeepers.

He's also played with Lovren and Joel Matip alongside him in the centre. Given the pressure he was already under from such a headline-hogging transfer, it might've been better not to tamper with the defensive positions unnecessarily at first.

On the whole he was good enough against Tottenham. It needs to be reiterated that he and Lovren were up against one of Europe's most formidable forwards and were largely up to the task.

The penalty decisions were poor and continue to spark comment. Sooner or later however, as with Lovren, people stop mentioning luck and simply count how many goals you've let in.

There are also doubts about how well Liverpool's defence is protected by midfield. Houllier and Benitez had exceptional destroyers, men such as Dietmar Hamann and Javier Mascherano who provided formidable cover for the back four.

Van Dijk will look ahead of him and only see the intense work rate of Roberto Firmino as coming close to the standards a top-class side should expect when trying to protect a lead.

All of which lies in the hands of the manager. It's possible Klopp sees so much good in how his team play that he's reluctant to interfere too much.

On that score, he might receive the unexpected backing of Houllier and Benitez. Houllier briefly tried to make Liverpool a more attacking team, but once results suffered he soon reverted to his rigid plan A.

The spotlight will stay on Van Dijk until Liverpool reduce the number of goals they concede. He could perform to the best of his ability, but the size of his fee suggests he was brought in to fix more than his own position.

As unfair as that seems, he will just have to get on with it and hopefully lead by example during the coming months.

Steven Kelly is one of ESPN FC's Liverpool bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @SteKelly198586.


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