Will the World Cup be full of tired stars? Assessing burnout, minutes played across top leagues

A strange thing has already happened a couple of times this season: Virgil van Dijk has looked human.

First, it happened on the opening weekend of the campaign. Fulham's Aleksandar Mitrovic, no one's definition of a dangerous dribbler, bore down on the Liverpool penalty area with the ball at his feet. It was a situation you've seen countless times over the past five years. The opponent breaks Liverpool's press and an attacker finds himself in a ton of space, only to see he still has VVD to beat. Most of the time, the Dutch international would usher the attacker into a bad angle and the threat would fizzle out into a low-probability shot or a turnover without Van Dijk even attempting a tackle. One time, it ended with Inter Milan's Lautaro Martinez literally giving up and turning around. But this time, it ended with Mitrovic cutting inside Van Dijk, winning a penalty and giving Fulham the lead.

Last week, it happened again. A through ball from Napoli's Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa put Victor Osimhen in behind the Liverpool backline. Van Dijk chased Osimhen down and had the angle covered, only for the striker to suddenly cut the ball back as Van Dijk clumsily smashed into him and conceded another penalty.

For a player whose dominance had been defined by an almost aggressive form of inaction, he was suddenly doing a lot and doing it poorly. Van Dijk committed 10 fouls in the Premier League last season; through six games this year, he has already committed eight.

There are plenty of potential reasons why. He was bound to have a bad stretch after nearly five years of peerless performance. He's also 31, right around the age when players at his position start to decline. And then there's the team around him: With a depleted midfield and revolving door of players next to him at center-back, he's being put in these specific situations more than he ever has before.

All of that has likely played a part, but what about this? What if van Dijk, like so many other pros, is just tired?