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Will the signing of Virgil van Dijk make Liverpool title contenders?

Jake Jackman

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Van Dijk

Liverpool have finally completed the long-awaited signing of Virgil van Dijk from Southampton for a world record fee. They have agreed to pay £75 million for the Dutchman, which makes him the most expensive defender in the history of football. The last few months have seen the Reds’ defensive woes get worse and they are now willing to pay an extra £15 million to secure the services of their primary centre-back target. Saints deserve credit for holding strong and denying a sale in the summer, as they have made more money as a result. They have agreed to a sale at this early stage in order to give Mauricio Pellegrino the time to spend the money.

For Jurgen Klopp, it was imperative that they improved their defence in the January window. They already have one of the best attacks in Europe, but they can’t be relied on to keep goals out at the other end. Poor collapses against Sevilla and Arsenal have shown their limitations as a team. Van Dijk is unlikely to be the sole solution, but he will come in and improve the defence. His arrival could lead to the rest of the back-line upping their own game. If it does, the Reds could be a force to be reckoned with during the second half of the season.

Despite their failure to land Van Dijk in the summer, Liverpool didn’t drop their interest and that shows huge faith in the defender. He is clearly the player that Klopp wants in his defence and the 26-year-old’s own commitment to the move means there will be a great deal of trust on both sides. This turbulent saga could prove to be a good thing for the club in the long-term as both parties will be desperate for it to be a success. It would have been easier for the Reds to move on to other targets after escaping punishment for alleged tapping-up, but they didn’t and they have now been rewarded for their persistence.

Since the initial rumours surfaced, it became evident that Van Dijk wanted to move to Liverpool over other interested clubs such as Manchester City and Chelsea. A lot of pundits have suggested that the defender is too good for the Reds, but he has been wooed by Jurgen Klopp and his comments after the transfer were announced reflect that. BBC Sport report the following quotes from the defender:

“Delighted and honoured to have agreed to become a Liverpool FC player. Today is a proud day for me and my family as I join one of the biggest clubs in world football.

“I can’t wait to pull on the famous red shirt for the first time in front of the Kop and will give everything I have to try and help this great club achieve something special in the years to come.

They may not be winning major honours at the time of writing, but Liverpool remain one of the biggest clubs in Europe. Van Dijk’s comments underline how attractive they are to potential targets and they are now beginning to build a team capable of living up to their standing. In the current game, the media and supporters alike can be obsessed with instant success. Pep Guardiola was criticised a lot during his first season, but Rome wasn’t built in a day and there are signs of development at Anfield.

At the age of 26, Van Dijk is approaching the peak years of his career and he has decided to join Liverpool. That is a huge backing of support for what Klopp is building at the club. They play attractive football and they are close to becoming a force once again. Van Dijk believes in the project and he is the perfect centre-half for the style of play that the Reds’ manager has implemented. He is excellent on the ball and excellent at launching attacks from deep. The Dutchman can be a playmaker from the heart of the defence and that will allow the team to play higher up the pitch.

A weakness for Liverpool this season has been their inability to deal with quick counter-attacks and set pieces. There have been too many occasions where Dejan Lovren has been left in a one-on-one situation and he isn’t good enough to come out on top. Van Dijk is a huge upgrade in this regard, as he is an intelligent reader of the game and is a physical beast. He is quick across the ground and capable of anticipating what the forward is going to do ahead of time, as shown by this season’s average of 2.61 interceptions per ninety minutes.

There are few better players in the air that Van Dijk. The 26-year-old has won an impressive 73.75% of his aerial duels this season. Liverpool have been regularly criticised for their lack of organisation and quality at defending set-pieces. The aerial presence of their new centre-back will go a long way in remedying that.

The signing of Virgil van Dijk alone will not solve the defensive woes of Liverpool. He is an excellent defender and he will improve the starting eleven hugely, but Klopp can’t see this as a sole solution. A new goalkeeper will need to be next on his transfer list as it has become clear that Simon Mignolet and Loris Karius are not good enough to start for a team with title ambitions.

The rest of defence has further problems, but there is potential and the addition of Van Dijk may accelerate their development. Joel Matip deserves the rest of the season alongside the Dutchman to see if he has the quality required. He has shown encouraging signs, but there have been problems. That said, he has played with players that aren’t good enough to start for Liverpool and that may have caused his struggles. Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joe Gomez and Andrew Robertson will all benefit from the leadership of the Dutch international.

Van Dijk will be a great addition to the Liverpool starting eleven and it is commendable that the club have got a deal done quickly, but they need more additions in January to be considered a contender for major honours.

Jake is a student based in the South East. He is a Newcastle fan and has a keen interest in Dutch football. Jake can be found on Twitter here - @jakejackmann.

Burnley

Burnley 0-1 Manchester United: Three talking points from Turf Moor

Rob Meech

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Photo: Reuters

Anthony Martial scored the only goal of the game as Manchester United recorded their third consecutive victory by seeing off Burnley at Turf Moor. In a game devoid of end-to-end entertainment, the Frenchman struck in the 54th minute when his right-footed shot found the net via the underside of the crossbar.

Burnley tried in vain to force a leveller but could not find a way past David de Gea, as their winless run extended to seven Premier League matches. United, meanwhile, have maintained their grip on second spot but remain 12 points drift of runaway leaders Manchester City. Here are three talking points…

United pass another away-day test

Despite rumours of unrest at Old Trafford, United are now unbeaten in eight Premier League matches. While their hopes of reeling in Manchester City may be remote, Jose Mourinho’s men are red-hot favourites to finish as runners-up. That would be a huge improvement on last season – their first under Mourinho – where United finished sixth. It was only their success in the Europa League that guaranteed them a place in the Champions League.

The Red Devils are definitely progressing and the expected arrival of Alexis Sanchez would give them another dimension. In particular, their away form will please Mourinho. This was United’s fifth victory in their past six Premier League games on their travels, a run that is helping to keep the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool at bay.

Burnley is a notoriously tricky place to visit, but United withstood the physical threat of the hosts and just about had enough to claim all three points.

Burnley are feeling the effects

When looking at the table, Burnley’s position appears to be very comfortable. In eighth place and with 34 points to their name, the Clarets are all but guaranteed to be playing Premier League football again next season. That would have been manager Sean Dyche’s priority and he can feel satisfied with the job he has done.

Nonetheless, this is a difficult period for Burnley, who have not tasted victory since they beat Stoke City on December 12. Scoring goals has been their biggest problem, having drawn a blank in four of their seven-game winless  run. The Clarets are not renowned as being free-scoring – they have found the net only 19 times this season – and rely on a solid defensive foundation.

Perhaps the exertions of their promising start have taken their toll on a settled side. The challenge for Dyche, who had been linked with the Everton job during the height of Burnley’s success, is to ensure his players do not fall into the trap of thinking they have nothing to play for.

Martial is making rapid progress

The Frenchman began the campaign out of favour at United, but he has regained his place in the side thanks to a series of consistent performances. His output has been productive, too. His goal against Burnley was his third in a row, taking him to 11 for the season. Allied to his seven assists, Martial is beginning to fulfil his immense potential.

He cut a frustrated figure at being kept out of the starting XI by Marcus Rashford – there was even speculation he might be on his way out of Old Trafford. But Martial said all the right things publicly and is no longer in the ‘supersub’ category. Competition for places will only intensify if and when Sanchez’s switch from Arsenal is completed.

But the former Monaco starlet should not fear the Chilean’s arrival, but relish it. He has proved he can be a trustworthy player for United. Like Luke Shaw, he is another to have benefited from some stern words from Mourinho, who will soon have an embarrassment of attacking riches to call upon.

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Bournemouth

West Ham 1-1 Bournemouth: Three talking points from the London Stadium

Rob Meech

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Hernandez
Photo: Reuters

West Ham United and AFC Bournemouth extended their respective unbeaten runs with a 1-1 draw at the London Stadium. Both clubs have climbed away from the relegation zone in recent weeks and this was a keenly-fought encounter between two evenly-matched sides.

Following a goalless first half, the Cherries broke the deadlock through Ryan Fraser after a breakaway, only for Javier Hernandez to equalise for the hosts 64 seconds later. A share of the spoils was a fair reflection and means West Ham and Bournemouth, 11th and 12th respectively, have identical records from the past six Premier League matches. Here are three talking points…

Future looks bright for both clubs

Just a month ago, the outlook was markedly different for both West Ham and Bournemouth. At Christmas, the Cherries were in the bottom three and the Hammers were not much better off. But the eventful 3-3 draw between these two teams on Boxing Day proved to be the start of an unbeaten run for each, which has given both real hope of avoiding relegation.

Such is the congested nature of the bottom half that it only takes a couple of victories to change the complexion on the table. Both clubs have won two and drawn three of their previous five fixtures, which has been enough to put clear daylight between themselves and the drop-zone.

This game, much like the corresponding fixture at the Vitality Stadium, suggests neither West Ham nor Bournemouth should be in serious trouble at the end of the campaign – if they can maintain their form. Equally though, David Moyes and Eddie Howe will be aware that complacency is not an option.

Impressive Fraser continues his resurgence

Bournemouth’s upturn in results since Christmas has coincided with a revitalised Fraser. The Scottish winger, affectionally known as ‘Wee Man’ by Cherries supporters, now has three goals and one assist in his past four appearances. His finishing has noticeably improved this season and he took his goal against West Ham with aplomb, firing the ball past Adrian after a defence-splitting pass from the returning Junior Stanislas.

Furthermore, Fraser’s improved stamina has enabled him to be effective for longer. Previously, the 23-year-old began to flag towards the latter stages and he was often replaced. But a better diet has paid dividends this campaign and he is rapidly becoming a key figure for Howe. Fraser has pace to burn and a directness that gives the team something different. Now though, he is having a real impact in games and his five Premier League goals are second only to Callum Wilson in the scoring charts.

Can West Ham afford to let Hernandez leave?

Speculation has surfaced in the past few days that Moyes may be willing to sell Hernandez, who only joined the club last summer. His arrival under Slaven Bilic was hailed as a real coup, but he has fallen down the pecking order since Moyes took the reins, with the former Manchester United supremo preferring Marko Arnautovic up top.

Hernandez though, has a creditable career goalscoring record and underlined his predatory instinct at the London Stadium. Only a minute after the Hammers had gone behind, the Mexican popped up in the right place to poke the ball past Asmir Begovic. It was Hernandez’s fifth Premier League goal of the season, all of which have been scored from inside the penalty area.

With Andy Carroll expected to be sidelined for a month through injury, West Ham’s striking resources would be depleted further if Hernandez is allowed to leave. While he may not offer much outside the box, as he illustrated against Bournemouth that he is the ideal man to call on when a goal is needed.

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Arsenal

Arsenal 4-1 Crystal Palace: Three talking points from the Emirates

Rob Meech

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Arsenal
Photo: Reuters

A barnstorming first-half performance against Crystal Palace saw Arsenal record their first victory of 2018. Nacho Monreal, Alex Iwobi, Laurent Koscielny and Alexandre Lacazette all scored in the opening 22 minutes to stun Crystal Palace. Arsenal could not add to their tally as the visitors stemmed the bleeding and replied with a late consolation through Luka Milivojevic.

This was a much-needed victory for Arsenal, whose ambitions of qualifying for the Champions League have taken a blow in recent weeks. Palace meanwhile, have been in impressive form since Roy Hodgson took charge, but this defeat has checked their progress. Here are three talking points from the Emirates…

Mesut Ozil steps up in Alexis Sanchez’s absence

With Alexis Sanchez’s move to Manchester United rumoured to be nearing completion, this was a chance for Arsenal supporters to see how the team might shape up without him. Sanchez was excluded from the side that lost to Bournemouth last weekend, but his absence was hardly felt here.

That might have had something to do with the return of Mesut Ozil from injury. The Germany international was influential throughout, particularly in partnership with the rejuvenated Jack Wilshere. Ozil is sometimes accused of drifting in and out of games against top-quality opposition, but when he is given licence to express himself without defensive responsibility, there are few better players to watch in the Premier League.

Although he failed to get on the scoresheet, Ozil showed Gunners fans that there can be life after Sanchez. It should not be forgotten that Ozil is another Arsenal player in the final six months of his contract. Tying him down to a new deal must be a priority for the club.

A reality check for lacklustre Palace

After losing their first seven Premier League matches – without scoring a goal in the process – relegation seemed nailed on for Palace. The appointment of Hodgson was largely derided, but the former England boss has had a remarkable impact in a relatively short space of time at Selhurst Park.

Survival is by no means guaranteed, but such has been their upturn in form that it is hard to imagine the Eagles being sucked back into trouble. It says a lot about their progress that many thought an upset might have been on the cards. Palace, however, were left shell-shocked after Arsenal’s four-goal burst.

When the Gunners click, they can be irresistible. Palace fans need not be too alarmed, even if their defending was lax. In fact, they should be heartened that their players did not capitulate in the second period, with the game effectively over. Although Milivojevic’s goal was too, little too late, it was just reward for a much-improved second-half performance.

Lacazette issues a timely reminder 

With a 3-0 advantage after just 13 minutes, Arsenal were in cruise control. But it was Lacazette’s goal, rounding off a superb team move to make it 4-0, that would have provided the biggest cheer. After hitting the ground running following his big-money transfer from Lyon last summer, the 26-year-old had endured a goal drought that stretched all the way back to December 2.

With questions being asked about his form, amid speculation that Arsenal are set to launch a raid for Borussia Dortmund striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, this was a timely reminder that Lacazette has plenty to offer. His overall record of nine Premier League goals from 24 appearances is more than respectable for a newcomer to the English game.

Lacazette will hope that his goal against Palace can be the catalyst for another scoring run. Without Sanchez, the burden rests more heavily on the France international and if a move for Aubameyang does not materialise, he will have a big part to play in Arsenal’s push for the top four.

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