Dissecting Haaland vs Van Dijk: When the league’s best striker took on its best defender

Dissecting Haaland vs Van Dijk: When the league’s best striker took on its best defender
Dissecting Haaland vs Van Dijk: When the league’s best striker took on its best defender

The best striker in the Premier League versus the best defender in the Premier League in a one-on-one showdown with millions of people watching across the world?

Liverpool vs Manchester City had far bigger things at stake on Sunday (it finished 1-1 for those of you who live on Mars) but those few seconds when Erling Haaland took on Virgil van Dijk were explosive and exciting. 

Two masters of their art had almost 3,500 square metres of hallowed Anfield turf to themselves. 

Haaland thundered towards goal, dancing around the ball with protracted step-overs and feints, desperate to tempt a challenge from the game’s most unflappable centre-half. But the Dutchman resisted, back-tracking towards his own goal, and though he ultimately could not stop Haaland from slipping away and taking on the shot, it was an effort comfortably collected by his goalkeeper.

Fantastic defending, or a slice of luck? The Athletic breaks it down, with the help of former Premier League strikers and centre-backs.

The Premier League title race on The Athletic

So, the ball breaks, and you’re staring down a single defender, with the freedom of the pitch to work with. What is going through your head?

“Well, you’re weighing up who you’re up against”, the Premier League’s all-time top goalscorer Alan Shearer tells The Athletic. “If, for argument’s sake, you’re up against a guy who you know is not as quick, then the obvious thing you’re going to do is knock it and run it.”

“But he knows he isn’t going to do that to Virgil, because the Liverpool defender is one of the few people who can keep up with Haaland  even running backwards.”

The solution is to unsettle Van Dijk, to throw him off balance with a series of twisting dummies and drives. During a five-second stampede, the Norwegian throws in three body feints, two changes of direction and one devastating burst of pace to finally break away from his defender’s grasp.

Haaland’s first move is to dart onto his right foot; this is across the defender’s body and away from where Van Dijk is trying to show him, but onto his weaker foot.

Note Van Dijk’s body shape — side-on and crouched low, able to shift his body weight if required. That stance, according to former Ivory Coast centre-back Sol Bamba, is crucial to the battle.

“Usually, if I was coaching a young defender, I would not tell them to turn their back to the ball so much. But Van Dijk never loses sight of where Haaland is — he is low on his knees and side-on, which means he is prepared to spring in any direction to follow his run.”

Seconds later, and Haaland has changed tack once again.

“What he’s trying to do is go left, go right, go left, go right, and then try to get Virgil off balance to gain control of the duel. But the defender doesn’t dive in, he stands up the whole way,” says Shearer.

It is a move for which Van Dijk has become renowned during his imperious spell at the heart of Liverpool’s defence, famously warding Tottenham’s Moussa Sissoko onto his left foot during a similar break back in 2019.

Statistically, that shows through with the ‘true’ tackles metric, which combines tackles won and lost, as well as fouls committed while attempting a tackle, to measure how often a player looks to “stick a foot in”. Over the last five seasons, Van Dijk averages just 2.2 tackle attempts per game, but crucially, his success rate is up at a very high 61 per cent.

“He never dives in and that’s an art”, says Bamba. “It is so easy to be tempted to go in for the tackle, but if you dive in, someone like Haaland is just going to push the ball past you and beat you.”

“If it was me, I probably would have committed,” Bamba continues, “Neil Warnock used to say to us, ‘If the ball passes, the striker doesn’t!’.”

“But it takes real discipline to back off like that. Van Dijk is clever, plays with his head and reads the game really well.”

The relentless Haaland continues to twist and turn even as the spaces continue to be shut down.

Having already turned Van Dijk around twice, the striker plants his right foot as if he is about to drag the ball over with his left, but instead ducks to the opposite side and continues onto his stronger foot.

Here we can see the subtle move in three frames, as Haaland nudges the ball underneath Van Dijk’s trailing boot and powers towards the penalty area.

The resulting shot, however, is weak, and Shearer puts that down to the defensive pressure.

“Because he hadn’t had much joy in going left and right, Haaland is thinking, ‘Right, I’m going to run out of time in a minute, so I have to get my shot away pretty quickly’.”

“In reality, he would have preferred to be another three or four yards closer, so that’s part of Van Dijk doing his job and making the forward’s mind up to take the shot where he has done”

Having kept close to Haaland all the way through, the defender even manages to lean into the striker just as he is lining up his shot.

Off balance, forced wide, and with his angles narrowed down, patient defensive play and constant attention to the ball have minimised the probability of the world’s most lethal striker getting a clean shot away, an effort valued at 0.10 expected goals by Opta, essentially suggesting an average player would have a 10 per cent chance of scoring. Not a bad result from an intimidating one-v-one.

“He makes it so uncomfortable for him,” says Bamba, “He is so close to him for 40 metres, and forces him into a difficult shot.”

“I would’ve fancied it in my heyday, yeah!” chuckled Shearer, asked if he would have enjoyed such a showdown in a massive game such as this. You can’t begrudge the confidence from a man with 260 Premier League goals.

But there aren’t many players in world football who can reliably beat Van Dijk in a one-v-one, as his latest titanic tussle showed.

“He would have believed in himself in that situation, Haaland, but it just didn’t happen”, said Shearer, “and that was more through really, really good defending than it was poor attacking play.”

Let’s hope we get a re-run again soon.

(Top photo: Premier League)