Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk says he should have taken a break from first team duties before and following the World Cup after making the stark admission his body paid a price to make a speedy return from knee surgery.
For the first time since his £75 million transfer from Southampton in 2017, Van Dijk’s performances have been the subject of sustained criticism as Liverpool have failed to mount a title challenge.
But the Dutchman says a personal comedown was inevitable after his triumphant comeback from a torn cruciate ligament injury 18 months ago.
“I came back from quite a complex injury. That takes treatment, that takes time, it takes getting used to and adaptation,” said Van Dijk.
“Coming back from the knee injury, I played all the Premier League games because everybody wants to be out there and I want to be out there. What caught up is that I played too many games at a time. When it’s game day I want to play and I’ll do everything possible to play, but I could have also thought before the World Cup, ‘let’s rest a little bit in order to be ready’.
“But I didn’t because I want to play and I want to be influential for this football club because I love this club and I work each and every day to be successful for this club. But it caught up with me unfortunately, my body. I’m not a robot and I think going into the World Cup, having the World Cup, and then doing nothing for a week and coming back was maybe not the right decision.”
‘This club belongs in the Champions League’
For the first time since knee surgery in October 2020, Van Dijk has admitted how much the cruciate injury affected him.
“We can all go back 10 or 15 years ago and it was quite difficult to be playing at the highest level for players who had done this injury,” he said.
“Sometimes people around will take it for granted and see it as normal, but it isn’t. That’s what I’m trying to prove, but not to the outside world, but to myself more. I want to go out there, I want to improve, and I want to make sure we get in the Champions League. This club belongs in the Champions League.”
After returning from a six-week absence with a hamstring injury, Van Dijk gave one of his most complete performances of the season, scoring in Wednesday’s 2-0 win over Wolverhampton Wanderers.
“These six weeks were a good chance for me to reflect, but also let my knee settle a little bit and get ready for the rest of the season,” he said.
“It was a tough six weeks to watch because you want to help the team and especially with a hamstring injury you have to be very patient. Patience is not in my vocabulary. It’s not in my system, but I had to [be].”
Times have changed, and football needs to recognize this
On the eve of this season, the footballers’ unions issued a stark warning of the injury perils facing the world’s most in-demand players.
“Do they realize these guys are not machines?” the PFA’s chief executive, Maheta Molango, told Telegraph Sport that performance data highlighted how elite athletes are playing more and resting less.
Just before the World Cup in Qatar, a study by the global footballers’ union, Fifpro, concluded it was a matter of when, not if, ‘extreme overload’ took its toll.
They highlighted how one player in particular was in the red zone prior to leading his country in Qatar. That was Liverpool and Holland’s Van Dijk with a total of 78 appearances and 7,597 minutes between July 2021 and October 24. No player going to the World Cup played more in that period.
Hardly surprising, then, that no sooner had Van Dijk returned from international duty than he pulled a hamstring.
It is easy to blame the usual targets for missing the signs, Fifa and Uefa especially guilty for wantonly ignoring pleas to reduce the schedule and while dreaming up more competitions, or extending existing tournaments.
But all football supporters share a level of culpability when noting the alerts about congestion only to shrug their shoulders and believe there must be a deeper, more profound reason for a drop in standards.
“They get paid enough and should get on with it,” is a common response, sympathy and empathy in short supply after another lackluster performance demands ever imaginative and more profound reasons for a dip in form. In Van Dijk’s case, there have been plenty of elaborate explanations offered, the accusation that he was ‘saving himself for the World Cup’ earlier in the season the most frequent.
Sometimes the obvious answer is correct. Van Dijk clearly played too much football upon his return from a complicated knee injury, his influence on the Liverpool team was such that there was no time to rest. And as he admits today, he would not have taken kindly to being left out.
That is another fundamental problem for those managers who foresee injury risks but are managing stars who only understand the reasoning for squad rotation in retrospect, often when it is too late as they recover from injury.
Even now, it is extraordinary how often we see top-level strikers unhappy at being subbed with their side comfortably ahead with 20 minutes to go, failing to appreciate how protecting their limbs for the following week is more important than adding to their goal tally in a game already won.
Go back two decades and it is staggering to recall how often a manager ‘tinkering’ with his line-up was a news story as key players took the huff at squad rotation policies. Read any interview with Michael Owen today and he freely admits his peak was before his first hamstring tear, his powers curtailed because he played too much football between the ages of 17-21. The same could be said of Robbie Fowler before his cruciate knee injury in 1998. But their teenage self hated missing any games and would question the manager’s reasoning.
Van Dijk is hardly alone in being over-exerted, especially at Liverpool, and has undoubtedly contributed to this erratic campaign. When the story of this Premier League season is written, it cannot be ignored how Arsenal had a full summer to energize and sprint out of the traps. The same can be said of Newcastle United. Those squads best equipped with conditioning time available to play a high intensity game every week have excelled, while those who have been doing so year upon year – even Manchester City – have not hit the same standard every week.
Van Dijk’s comments do not change the fact Liverpool must make squad changes at the end of this season, nor dilute the reality that having had access to the data the club should have been more prepared for the rigors of previous seasons taking their toll.
But they also hint at why Klopp is sure those senior players who survive his cull will look reinvigorated in a year’s time. To him, they do not need to be replaced. They just need a summer rest.