Virgil van Dijk the difference-maker as Liverpool rediscover impact of winning away

 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

Liverpool edged out Sheffield United by a 2-0 scoreline at Bramall Lane, the relatively low scoreline perhaps reflecting the lack of quality on show rather more than the gulf in possession and intent between the teams.

New home boss Chris Wilder, returning for the first game of his second spell at the club, was welcomed with applause and pre-match chants of, “he’s one of our own”. He might hope to rapidly turn matters around and put the Blades into unchartered territory for this season, but his first game back was all too familiar in most regards.

Perhaps he can take some optimism from his team’s early fight, as they progressed on several counterattacks, and also from the fact that the scoreline remained close until late on. But there’s clearly an awful long way to go before the team at the very bottom can begin considering a route to safety.

Meanwhile for the victorious Reds, Virgil van Dijk and Dominik Szoboszlai earning them the points, having seen Arsenal snatch a late win at Luton to open up a five-point lead at the top of the league one night prior, they’ll know the past few weeks have only reinforced how much impact away form will have on the title fight this season.

The Premier League’s finest do not, by and large, drop many points at home. Liverpool themselves have just about, after the late turnaround against Fulham at the weekend, remained perfect. Between the top four – Jurgen Klopp’s team along with the Gunners, Manchester City and Aston Villa – they have dropped just eight points this term from a possible total of 84, ahead of Wednesday night’s late kick-off between the latter two.

If near-perfection is the minimum requirement on home soil, then, it is only on their travels where marginal gains can be found, differences can be made and the title decided.

Liverpool’s results thus far had not been the most impressive, with the partial caveat that they have faced several big rivals on the road already, including Man City, Newcastle and Tottenham. Even so, two wins from seven isn’t the strike rate they require, particularly when the disappointing 1-1 at newcomers Luton is factored in.

As such, they have much to thank their captain for after shining at both ends of the pitch.

Mohamed Salah sliced the first opening of the game over the bar after Wataru Endo’s turn and forward pass set the visitors onto the attack, but the first big chance came at the other end. Joe Gomez, restored at left-back, took too long to turn in possession on the halfway line and was robbed by Cameron Archer. While he couldn’t surge clear entirely, Gomez recovering to an extent, the ball eventually bobbled the way of James McAtee – who couldn’t beat Caoimhin Kelleher.

Archer again failed to find the required incision after breaking through down the left, delaying a shot long enough to allow Van Dijk to close him down, then dithered in a costly fashion again, with 20 minutes to play, to the anguish of the home fans.

Where the striker failed, the centre-back succeeded.

In between Archer’s spurned openings came Van Dijk’s own finish. When a calm and composed delivery came from Trent Alexander-Arnold’s corner, the Dutchman was left unmarked and swiped home a finish from near the penalty spot, amid complaints he had impeded Anel Ahmedhodzic as the delivery came over. Liverpool’s captain was imperious in the air all game and defended impeccably throughout, but it was his unerring accuracy with this shot which proved decisive.

Virgil van Dijk calmly slotted Liverpool’s opener (Reuters)
Virgil van Dijk calmly slotted Liverpool’s opener (Reuters)

Ten minutes into the second half Salah almost netted a carbon copy of Van Dijk’s goal, Wes Foderingham this time doing enough to react well and parry over the bar. It was his third and best attempt to finally hit the 200-goal mark he’s been looking to breach for his club, on a night which saw him largely well-marshalled and kept on the periphery of matters.

And perhaps that says everything about Liverpool’s latest performance on the road.

Too often it was slow, stilted, sloppy with routine passes out of defence. Pushing forward Alexis Mac Allister into a more advanced role didn’t pay dividends; he was a bystander for much of the first half and went off injured early in the second. He wasn’t the only one not to hit the heights in the game; Ibrahima Konate showed plenty of rustiness, Luis Diaz has yet to hit top gear again, Cody Gakpo did another fair impression of whatever the direct opposite is of a force of nature.

Sub Darwin Nunez brought energy and movement, but not finesse, placing a one-on-one effort straight at the keeper to leave the hosts with hope. But in truth, they created next to nothing to spark that hope, leaving the Reds with the points wrapped up after Nunez won back the ball late on and crossed for Szoboszlai to crash home.

It wasn’t as dramatic, as exciting or as emotional as Arsenal’s latest win on the road, but it counts for exactly the same in league terms. And when the margin for error is as close to nil as it has been over the past few years, that’s all that will matter for Jurgen Klopp tonight.