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Liverpool host West Ham United on Saturday in what will be Virgil van Dijk’s biggest test for the Reds since joining in January. He has faced media darlings Tottenham Hotspur already, but matches against teams like the Hammers will ultimately be what he’s judged on.
The £75million signing got off to the perfect start. His debut for Liverpool was the stuff dreams are made of. Attacking the Kop end, he rose highest to head home Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s 84th minute corner kick to win the match for the Reds against Everton in the Merseyside derby.
However, he wasn’t signed to be a goal threat, rather to shore things up defensively for Jürgen Klopp’s men. The honeymoon period didn’t last long for the club’s record buy. His next game, against relegation threatened Swansea City, saw him swipe wildly at a cross to gift the home side a soft corner. Alfie Mawson fired home after pinball in the penalty area and Liverpool were defeated – their first loss in 19 matches in all competitions.
Yet again, a corner kick was their undoing. Liverpool have struggled to defend set pieces, especially corners, since Klopp’s arrival in October 2015. Whether it’s systematic or a personnel problem has been a hot topic of debate, with Jamie Carragher and Jamie Redknapp having a heated debate on Sky Sports following on from the 3-3 draw with Watford in Liverpool’s first match of the 2017/18 campaign.
The latter believed it was a personnel issue and the arrival of van Dijk would solve all of their problems. The former, however, was adamant the system was their downfall with Carragher saying: “On set pieces it’s not about the defenders. The way Liverpool are set up – set piece wise – they will always concede goals. No matter which defenders they buy or how much they cost – it won’t make a difference.”
In van Dijk’s third game for the club, at home to West Bromwich Albion, it appeared as though Carragher’s fears were warranted. The Baggies had a goal, the most straightforward corner kick goal you’ll perhaps ever see, ruled out for offside. But at the time the Liverpool players didn’t know. They’d just defended it poorly.
Alan Pardew’s team did score a third goal, it arrived in the second half and though not directly from a corner kick, the Reds only managed to half clear the initial ball into the area.
Klopp's men do look more assured with van Dijk in defence but while they continue to concede goals, seven in his six starts, there will be question marks over whether he warranted the fuss or the lengthy pursuit – even if the goals have nothing to do with him directly. It's the goals against column upon which judgements will be based.
It's why a big performance against David Moyes‘ men is needed. On paper they might not seem like a threat to a rampant Reds side who netted eight in their last two matches while keeping clean sheets in both games. But, as revealed in a a recent feature on Football Whispers, West Ham are the second best team in the Premier League at converting corners into goals.
They've scored seven this season – including goals against organised defences in Manchester City, Spurs and Newcastle United – giving them a conversion rate of 6.25 per cent. Only Stoke City have a better ratio in the English top flight.
Surprisingly, it's Arsenal and Bournemouth who lead the way with eight. In terms of goals from corners West Ham are joint second. With Andy Carroll, Cheikhou Kouyaté, Winston Reid and James Collins in the squad it was inevitable that the Hammers would be a threat in the air.
Moyes' man have ten players with 2.5 or more aerial duels won per 90 minutes compared to Liverpool's five. Style no doubt influences these numbers but the fact remains when the ball is in the air, which it normally is when a corner comes in, not many teams have players who can compete with West Ham.
It's a situation the away side will look to capitalise on when they visit Anfield, and rightly so. Liverpool, who have improved defensively over recent weeks, are still one of the worst statistically for defending corners.
The opposition have converted 4.35 per cent of the corners they've had against the Reds, putting them in the top five for goals conceded in this manner – they're the only top six side in this mini league. For even more context, they’ve faced just 17 more corners than Manchester City but conceded three more goals than the champions-elect.
Saturday gives van Dijk the perfect opportunity to silence a few early doubters. A dominant aerial performance against a team who would usually cause Liverpool a lot of problems would go a long way to justifying the Klopp's faith in him.