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'He's the best in the world, and deserves the Ballon d'Or' - How Van Dijk transformed Klopp's Liverpool

09:30 BST 22/07/2019
Virgil Van Dijk Joe Gomez Liverpool 2018-19
In an exclusive interview with Goal, Joe Gomez explains why the £75 million man can be compared to the great modern defenders

It’s funny how things turn out in football sometimes.

Joe Gomez and Virgil van Dijk are best mates these days, as close off the pitch as they are on it. On Liverpool’s three-game tour of the USA, they have been inseparable; laughing, joking, working, encouraging, debating.

“We talk every day, about literally everything,” Gomez tells Goal in an exclusive interview. “I’ve said it before, but he’s like my big brother.”

It could have been very different. In a different world, these players would be rivals, enemies even. 

In fact, Van Dijk could easily have been the man to end Gomez’s Liverpool career.

Let’s rewind, for a moment, to the summer of 2017. The Reds are pursuing a new centre-back, and we all know who their top target is. Their courting of Van Dijk is strong, strong enough to rile Southampton and necessitate a rather public, and rather embarrassing, climbdown.

They would get their man eventually, waiting six months before completing a £75 million ($94m) transfer in January 2018. 

But had Van Dijk signed in the summer, as he was supposed to, then his bromance with Gomez may never have happened.

“If he’d have come then,” Gomez says, “then I’d probably have gone out on loan.”

He’s not joking, either. Liverpool fielded numerous enquiries for the England international that summer. Brighton and Huddersfield were the two who pushed hardest. 

Gomez’s preference was always to stay at Anfield, but having missed more than a year of football due to a serious knee injury, playing time was a must. The idea of a temporary switch was seriously considered, and who knows how that might have panned out.

As it happened, there was no need. Liverpool got through the first half of the campaign with Dejan Lovren, Joel Matip and Ragnar Klavan, while Gomez rotated with Trent Alexander-Arnold at right-back, playing his way back into form and fitness. 

Liverpool were a good side at that point, a Champions League side. Their flaw, though, was their defence. They could be brittle and panicky, they could ship goals against even average teams. Watford, Sevilla and Arsenal all scored three times against them between August and December 2017, Spurs hit them for four at Wembley, while Manchester City smashed five past them at the Etihad. Something needed to change.

That something was Van Dijk. Since the Dutchman rocked up on Merseyside, the change has been clear. The Reds are now as solid as any team in Europe.

Gomez has benefited as much as anybody from Van Dijk’s arrival. He became his centre-back partner in the first half of last season, the pair establishing a stellar understanding. Van Dijk is a laid-back character, but one with a steely determination on the field.

His standards are high, whether in training or in matches, but Gomez has found a player willing to help those around him too. Regularly, he will pick his senior partner’s brains about defensive positioning, about diet and nutrition, and about the mental side of the game, how to deal with pressure, how to move on from mistakes and misfortune, how to perform to a consistently high level.

How to be more like Virgil, you could say.

“He’s been unbelievable,” Gomez says. “There are not many people who could come with that kind of price tag and not only live up to it, but go far beyond it. That’s what he’s done.

“As soon as he came in, it was just clear that he was such a good guy. Everyone can see it. He came for a massive fee, but there’s no superstar status to him. I think that’s why we get along. He’s grateful for what he has, he’s come from humble beginnings and he’s had to work for everything he’s got. He understands that. I’m lucky to have someone like him around. 

“He won’t say it, but he’s the best in the world.”

Few would disagree right now. Van Dijk, in fact, is the favourite to land this year’s Ballon d’Or ahead of the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Should he do so, he would become the first defender to win the award since 2006, and only the second Liverpool player ever to receive it.

“It’s only right,” Gomez says. “The impact he’s had, that’s probably been the biggest factor.

“It’s one thing to come into a team and perform well individually, but to give the whole team a lift and a confidence like he has, that’s something else. 

“It’s not just the team who feel it, it’s the stadium too, the fans. When Virgil is on the pitch, they feel safe. When the ball goes into the box, you know it’ll be him who gets his head on it. That’s priceless.”

Gomez grew up idolising Rio Ferdinand, a fellow South Londoner, and so when he compares Van Dijk to the former Manchester United and England star, it is a big compliment. 

“There are similarities for sure,” he says. “I loved watching Rio when I was younger, and I’m lucky now to have someone like Virgil in the flesh, to learn from and to watch every single day. There’s a genuine understanding between us, where I can ask him anything, football or non-football. 

“With the stature that he has, he’s on the way to emulating those kind of players and their achievements. 

“When you win the Champions League, and when you perform like he has for the last few years, you are elevated to that status. He deserves every bit of praise that comes his way.

“Like I say, I’m blessed to have someone like him alongside me, on the pitch and off it.”