Cosmin Iftode /

Last season, Liverpool finished an almighty 17 points behind eventual champions Manchester City in their pursuit to defend their Premier League trophy.

The season the Reds won the title in 2019/20, the then defending champions, City, ended the campaign 18 points behind Liverpool.

corner since day one. My teammates for giving me energy and keeping my head up. The fans for their love, support and encouragement. And most of all, my family because without them, I’d be nothing. Thank you. The work doesn’t stop now. It’s only just starting. We keep going! 2/2

— Virgil van Dijk (@VirgilvDijk) July 29, 2021

The title-winning difference in these two years: an unrivalled addition of an astute defensive player. First, for Liverpool, it was the arrival of Virgil van Dijk, who catapulted the Merseyside club to a Champions League and a Premier League medal within two seasons.

Then, in 2021, Ruben Dias came in as the long term replacement for Vincent Kompany and within that year, City conquered England once again with another League Cup and Premier League medal.

Now, with Dias City’s main man, Raphael Varane joining Manchester United, and the return of van Dijk for the 2020 champions, can the Dutchman rocket Liverpool back to the title?

Either way, the proof is in the pudding, as the best defensive team in each season of the past two campaigns has won the title.

The importance of this defensive solidity is evidenced further how Liverpool managed to concede just 55 goals in two seasons with van Dijk at the back throughout 2018-2020.

Then, with his injury early in the 2020/21 campaign, the Reds let in 42 across that season, which is just 13 less than they let in across the previous two.

Ahead of the 2021/22 race, there can be no two ways about it: the Reds are back amongst the very best. And, if they can capture the form they showed throughout the two seasons prior to last, they might just be the team to watch, as they registered an extraordinary 196 points within this time – the most of any Premier League team ever across back-to-back seasons.

The Reds, however, will need van Dijk to be just as vital and practically act as a new signing. They’ll need his defensive brilliance each game so that Fabinho can shine in central midfield, rather than in centre-back.

The same will apply for the likes of Sadio Mane, who, when van Dijk got injured, went on to have his worst season for the Reds since his debut campaign on Merseyside.

Liverpool can, no doubt, force a title charge with the Dutch defender returning, as they did so in two out of two seasons with him at the back.

285 days ago, I started on a journey back towards playing. It’s hard to express how I am feeling, but it’s important to me that I say I feel blessed to have had the support of so many incredible people. The surgeon, my physios, coaches and staff who have been with me in my 1/2

— Virgil van Dijk (@VirgilvDijk) July 29, 2021

But this defensive reshape isn’t going to be the absolute difference, as players like Mane, Jordan Henderson, Trent Alexander-Arnold and even the great Mohamed Salah must start to put in the numbers that got them to the top back in 2020, not just van Dijk.

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