Virgil van Dijk has irrefutably lived up to his former tag as the ‘most expensive defender in the world’, standing as a pillar of consistency for Liverpool’s defensive line. Today, the Dutchman leads his fellow troops with strength, composure and above all, attrition. So just how has this man set himself up, potentially, as the man behind Liverpool’s first Premier League title?
A Colossus is Born
Ask any van Dijk worshippers without any knowledge of his past, and they would assume that he was schooled by Ajax, tutored in the art of defensive distribution to within an inch of his life. In fact, he began as a youth with the lesser mortals of Willem II Tilburg, mixing youth league duties with a part-time job as a humble dishwasher.
He initially started at right-back, but after a growth spurt, found home in the centre-back role. However, it was an improvement that came too late, and in the opinion of coach Edwin Hermans, the only silverware that could ever pass through Van Dijk’s hands would be of the soapy, canteen variety.
He was duly sold to Groningen, and spent an entire season playing some exceptional defensive football for the youth side. Naturally, his sheer size made him a near-impossible obstacle for some of the more runty opponents he faced, and the craving for (quite literally) a bigger challenge was one that went un-granted until the very end of 2010/11.
By now, van Dijk was already in the Dutch U-19 squad, and he was finally unleashed as a Groningen senior in May 2011, initially playing twenty minutes from the bench. His second game was a Europa League playoff, and it was here that his reputation as a danger man was conceived, with a brace against ADO Den Haag in a 5-1 win.
A Lucky Bhoy
Van Dijk’s promotion to the Dutch U-21 side came quickly, and enabled him to adapt to much more competitive environments. 2011/12 would be his breakout season, with van Dijk making 23 appearances for the Groningen first team. However, his career – and life – could have ended long before that run in the first team.
As can be seen by anyone into football betting, Liverpool are firmly on Manchester City’s tail in the title outright market. Van Dijk is one of several primary reasons that the Reds enjoy such a status. Thus, at least from a Liverpool perspective, it is chilling to comprehend the fact that van Dijk came very close to dying long before his 2017 move to Liverpool.
Shortly after turning 20, van Dijk contracted Peritonitis and kidney poisoning. Such was his proximity to death, that he was in-essence urged to sign a will, and with his sickness going undiagnosed for days before his admission to Groningen hospital, there is every chance that another few hours without treatment could have finished him.
It was not van Dijk’s time yet, however, and he would recover in impressive time to finish the campaign strongly. 2012/13 was another great campaign for van Dijk, but Groningen knew that his departure must eventually come. The club’s first choice was Ajax, who had the finances and resources to nurture van Dijk in the best way possible. However, the Amsterdam outfit rejected Groningen’s offer, and it was Celtic that took the initiative.
Excluding other bonuses and add-ons, just £2.6m was the base price that sealed the move. In typical van Dijk fashion, he got a clean sheet on his debut as a substitute, and had his first Celtic goals by November.
Due to Rangers’ existence in the bowels of the Scottish third tier at that time, the SPL title was a formality. However, van Dijk’s presence in the squad gave the Bhoys’ defence a much more assured feel, taking some of the strain off his teammates during more difficult moments of the campaign.
His skills were very useful in that regard the following season, when Celtic reached the knockout stages of the Europa League. The Bhoys eventually bowed out, but van Dijk’s dismissal in the second leg (after a 3-3 draw at Celtic Park) was a blow from which Celtic could never recover, and left many wondering how far Celtic may have proceeded had the Dutchman avoided dismissal.
Crossing the Border
A failure for Celtic to negotiate the following season’s qualifiers would provoke the now-senior Dutch international into seeking pastures greener than the ribbons permanently affixed to the SPL trophy. A Southampton team managed by countryman and fellow goalscoring defender Ronald Koeman seemed like the perfect destination, especially with the Saints finishing a new Premier League-high of seventh in his first full season at the helm.
He signed above the dotted line on deadline day, and just 11 days later, it was another clean sheet debut for van Dijk. His first goal for a new club on British soil came just two weeks later, and he was able to utilise the momentum from that goal, being part of a Saints defence that made a one-place improvement on the previous campaign and reached the 2016/17 EFL Cup final the following year.
After being instrumental in the said cup run, van Dijk would miss that final itself due to injury. Overall it was a game for the taking, with winners Manchester United second-best for swathes of the match, but the Saints’ defence lacked its usual composure without van Dijk.
With Koeman having departing for Everton by then, and Southampton losing their first cup final in 14 years and sliding down the table, van Dijk went public with his desire to change clubs in the summer of 2017. Far from being an outcast, he remained in-situ for another five months, before finally making his big-time move to Anfield.
£75m Man Smashes Two Records
Though Jurgen Klopp had partially restored Liverpool’s reputation as a regular top-four contender, the Reds’ scintillating forward trio still worshipped today frequently found their efforts rendered meaningless, by a defence that was often caught out on the counter-attack. Many baulked at the fee that brought van Dijk to Anfield, but there were few others with his aerial presence and composure at the time.
He was the obvious solution, and paid back much of that fee by breaking another record – namely, scoring on his debut. That debut came against none other than Liverpool’s great rivals Everton, in the third round of the FA Cup at Anfield. As is the way with most derbies of this era, Liverpool controlled large portions of the game, but were stifled time and again by a battling blue wall.
The Reds went 1-0 up, but this riled Everton into making the second half much more of a fight. Their efforts were rewarded with Gylfi Sigurdsson’s leveller at the Anfield Road end, and from that point, the match could easily have gone either way. A Kop End corner, just five minutes from the end of normal time, would immediately etch van Dijk’s name into Anfield folklore.
Every millisecond of van Dijk’s experience went into his perfectly-timed jump, which the Everton defence had no chance of keeping out. The ball nestled into the net, and the roof came off Anfield. However, his impact during Liverpool’s run to that year’s Champions League final was not lost on anyone. Neither was his input ignored during the Reds’ title challenge of 2018/19, which saw them concede a league-best of just 22 goals throughout the entire campaign. However, the ultimate dream finally became reality on 1 June, with van Dijk saving the very best until last.
Aside from the Premier League, there is one other title that van Dijk is aching to win – namely, the Ballon d’Or. While Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are currently in the mix, their teams won their respective league titles at a canter in 2018/19.
Marshalling a Liverpool defence, once so synonymous with agonising fallibility, to a tally of less than 25 goals conceded across 38 league games takes some doing. So too does holding out against Barcelona, and preventing a fatal ‘away’ goal – while also providing enough downfield balls to overhaul a three-goal deficit – is also something only one man in a million could do.
Defenders never have it easy against the world’s biggest goal-plundering stars come voting time, but the signs are there that he can win December’s Ballon d’Or. It has been 13 years since a defender last scooped the illustrious prize, and with few other players matching van Dijk this year, Liverpool could well have their first Ballon d’Or winner since Michael Owen in 2001.
Van Dijk’s rise to stardom has also reached another milestone in recent weeks, as he becomes the first Premier League defender in 20 years to feature on the cover of a FIFA game. Sol Campbell (for 1999 release FIFA 2000) is the last such player to receive an accolade, and within three years, he was part of a title-winning squad.
Believe in coincidences? The fact that van Dijk’s appearance is exclusive to the Champions Edition of the new FIFA title may well be an omen…