Off the Crossbar: PFA Player of the Year

Offense always grabs the headlines in sports, and soccer is no exception. The Ballon d’Or is the world’s most prestigious individual award for a soccer player. But since its first edition in 1956, only three defenders have won the award — and none since 2006. Defenders are often the unsung heroes in soccer, but Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk might be about to change that.

The Professional Footballers Association (PFA) released its shortlist for Player of the Year in the English Premier League on Saturday. The list included three players from Manchester City (Bernardo Silva, Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling), two from Liverpool (Sadio Mané and van Dijk) and Chelsea’s Eden Hazard. Sterling and Van Dijk are spearheading fierce title pushes for City and Liverpool, respectively, and are widely considered frontrunners for this award.

Raheem Sterling, over the past two seasons, has added a previously missing final product to his game. The former Liverpool product was always pacy and skillful, but he never seemed to manage to play that killer ball or finish with composure. That has changed under coach Pep Guardiola. After scoring just 13 goals during his first two seasons for City, Sterling is up to 35 and counting over his last two campaigns. He gives City a different dimension going forward, and has led Guardiola’s men to the best attacking record in the league, even without star Belgian playmaker Kevin de Bruyne for most of the year.

The England international also had a solid World Cup for the Three Lions. At just 24, he still has room to grow and is likely to feature regularly on the shortlist list for years to come. For the second time in a row, though, he might be outdone by a member of his former team.

Liverpool was widely chastised for bringing in van Dijk last winter. It wasn’t necessarily a knock on the Dutchman’s skill, rather a jab at the £75 million fee Liverpool forked over to Southampton for his services. Looking back on that deal makes it seem like a bargain. In the 22 Premier League games last season before van Dijk’s arrival, the Reds conceded 25 goals, an average of 1.14 per game. In the 16 remaining fixtures after he joined, that number dropped to 0.81 per game. In the 35 matches so far this campaign, Liverpool has only conceded 0.57 goals per match, the lowest in the league.

The Reds went from an exciting, attacking outfit with an inconsistent backline to one of the most complete teams in Europe. While van Dijk doesn’t deserve all of the credit for that, he is the undisputed leader at the back. Perhaps the most astonishing stat of van Dijk’s campaign is zero times dribbled past. That’s right. Not a single player has managed to dribble past the Dutchman in the 35 games and 3,115 minutes he has played this season.

There’s an old adage in team sports: “Offense sells tickets; defense wins championships.” For all of Sterling’s heroics, van Dijk deserves this award for the work he’s done, in a very short time, to make Liverpool legitimate Premier League title contenders.