Finding the Virgil van Dijk replacement for Liverpool

And potentially his long-term successor

I promise the Marginal Pains newsletter won’t always focus on something relating to Virgil van Dijk. But, for now, here we are.

We’re into *checks date* day five of the post-Virgil van Dijk world. I’ve slept a bit. I think this is how Voldemort used to feel whenever a Horcrux was destroyed. Anyway, I think I’ve found a genuine replacement for the Dutch colossus. 

By no means was it easy but finding a replacement for the best centre-back in the world shouldn’t be. I had to build a profile first and this meant picking the traits that best showcase what the £75million defender is all about. The most obvious thing about him is his aerial ability. 

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Since the start of the 2018/19 campaign, Van Dijk has won around 70% of his aerial battles in the Premier League. Last season, only two players (Joel Matip and Shkodran Mustafi) could better his average of 75%. That was the first requirement when looking for a player, they needed to win roughly 70% of their duels in the air. 

Next up, ground duels. It’ll come as no surprise to hear that the Liverpool No.4 wins around 70%. For context, Joe Gomez, over the past three seasons, has averaged a 59% success rate in duels. A player with a 65% success rate would be preferred for this. 

Another trait of Van Dijk’s is his on-ball ability. He regularly completes 90% or more of his passes and, per Wyscout, nine of his 69 attempted passes are considered long. He’s expressive yet efficient. So someone with an average pass success rate of 85% or more is what I was after. The Dutchman is also a key part of how Liverpool attack, as referenced by Mikel Arteta after Arsenal lost to the Premier League champions recently. 

“We tried to put them under as much pressure as we could but Van Dijk plays 60 yards to Mohamed Salah and they are out.”

Any potential replacement has to be comfortable playing in a high line. A lot of Van Dijk’s actions in a game happen on or around the halfway line. It’s one of the reasons the links to Wolves captain Conor Coady don’t make sense, as detailed in the first newsletter. 

Playing in a high defensive line means they’ll need spatial awareness, game intelligence and decent recovery pace. All three are preferable but two out of three can ensure the job is done to a high standard. 

There have been links to RB Leipzig duo Dayot Upamecano and Ibrahima Konate, Sevilla’s Diego Carlos and Schalke’s Turkey international, Ozan Kabak. All have their strengths and weaknesses. Their prices vary, as does their potential. 

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Upamecano, for example, can pick passes and he’s got Van Dijk’s physical presence, but he’s winning 60% of his ground duels and 62% of his aerial ones. You also have to consider the fact the Frenchman has switched between playing in a back four and a back three a lot over recent seasons. It’s not hurt his development, but it does mean his averages are slightly skewed, in a sense. 

Graphic courtesy of FBRef and Statsbomb

For obvious reasons, it’s a similar story with Konate. The 2018/19 campaign was by far his best, he was winning 67% of both duels and aerial battles while completing 85% of his passes, but since then he’s struggled with injuries. He made just eight starts in the Bundesliga last season yet somehow managed to play three different roles. 

Carlos is an intriguing one. He’s 27, reports claim he has a £65million release clause and there’s a recklessness to his game that Liverpool fans are all too familiar with after years of Martin Skrtel and Dejan Lovren. Yet he can be brilliant and his performances did help Sevilla claim another Europa League triumph last season. He’s handy in possession, but he’s only winning half his aerial duels and 55% of his ground duels in LaLiga. 

There was a lot of talk surrounding Kabak in the summer, Schalke reportedly needed to free up funds and the 20-year-old was viewed by the Reds as an option to replace Lovren. But after the spitting incident, which has seen him banned for five matches, it doesn’t appear as though he has the right attitude or mentality for Liverpool. 

I started with aerial duels, then looked at ground duels and finished off my list with pass completion averages. I then tried to find someone who excelled in all three areas across the top five European leagues. Wesley Fofana, Leicester City’s latest signing, showed up well. The standout player was someone else playing their trade in Ligue 1. 

He’s a 24-year-old, 6ft3ins left-sided right-footed centre-back. The sample size is 2,500 minutes, which is more than enough to confidently judge a player. He’s got a 71% aerial duel success rate, he’s won 67% of his ground duels and he has a 90% pass success rate. 

Say hello to Duje Caleta-Car. 

The Croatia international joined Marseille in 2018 having played for Red Bull Salzburg (yes, that is another box ticked). Under André Villas-Boas, his involvement in the team has increased, and he’s started all seven games for Les Olympiens in Ligue 1 this term. 

Caleta-Car rarely goes to ground, he’s comfortable when dragged into wide areas and he does well in one-on-one situations. Marseille tend to commit the full-backs forward and leave their centre-backs to cover large areas in a not too dissimilar way to how Liverpool operate. 

Statistically, he ticks all of the boxes. But what really takes him to the top of the list is his ability with the ball. 

His passes can, and do, bypass an entire team. The one he played against Bordeaux, in the above still, is one you’d see Van Dijk play to Sadio Mane. It’s easy to attempt such a pass, the skill is executing it and Caleta-Car judges the weight to perfection. 

He’s also got a Thiago pass in his locker, too. Against Angers, above, he shaped to play a ball to the right side of the pitch, but instead dropped a pass over the defensive line and between centre-back and left-back for the right-winger to latch onto. Again, it was perfectly weighted and with one pass, Marseille had gone from sterile possession to breaking into the opposition’s penalty area. 

Caleta-Car won’t be cheap, his current deal expires in 2023, but shouldn’t break the bank like Upamecano, Konate or Carlos would. He could fill in for Van Dijk now and, if he progresses as expected, the 24-year-old could eventually replace the former Southampton man at Anfield. 

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