Van Dijk could walk into any team in the world – and improve it
Liverpool defender would top the list of any big European club looking for premier talent
Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk after scoring in a league match against Brighton at Anfield on November 30th. Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Speculative stories are beginning to emerge about Virgil van Dijk’s future, which is no real surprise since – to paraphrase Jane Austen – a 28-year-old defender with the world at his feet must be about to make someone a fortune.
In point of fact the Netherlands international would find it difficult to make a step up from Anfield right now, what with Liverpool poised to add the Premier League title to the Champions League crown they hold and may well successfully defend in the next few months.
There is no actual need for Van Dijk to go anywhere and quite possibly he won’t, especially if Liverpool are willing to practically double his money by offering an early contract extension, though suggestions that Pep Guardiola might be about to turn up at Juventus next season and wave a cheque for £150 million under the Merseyside club’s nose are an amusing way of passing the time until the full fixture programme returns.
While that scenario sounds like wishful thinking on the part of the 18 Premier League clubs who would not mind seeing Liverpool and Manchester City hit by a double whammy, it is surely no accident that Van Dijk finds himself the centre of attention.
Should the financial giants of Italy or Spain decide to launch an irresistible attack on Premier League talent, who else would they go for?
Van Dijk at the moment is probably Britain’s most marketable property, one of the very few players who might be worth £150 million. It is only two years since eyebrows were raised when Liverpool shelled out £75 million for a player who had been hiding in plain sight at Celtic and Southampton, though it was quickly acknowledged that far from going out on a limb Jürgen Klopp and his staff had got themselves a bargain.
When one considers how good Liverpool have been since then, the standards that have been set, what has been achieved and the fact that the player is better for the experience and hitting his prime, it does not seem unreasonable for an already high price to have doubled.
Van Dijk won the award for PFA player of the season last year, was predictably and somewhat unluckily pipped by Lionel Messi at the Ballon d’Or and – with Liverpool now champions of the world in addition to Europe and most likely England – he is bound to be in the running for all the individual gongs this season.
To stand out in the present Liverpool lineup is some feat, especially for a defender, but Van Dijk might just be the most transformative signing made in recent seasons in English football.
Although Kevin De Bruyne stands out at Manchester City, he arrived when Manuel Pellegrini was in charge and had to wait a couple of seasons for success.
Eden Hazard won European and domestic honours with Chelsea and was unquestionably a stand-out asset, though it is hard to transform a club that keep changing their managers.
The same could be said of Manchester United, where to suggest big-money signings such as Ángel Di María, Romelu Lukaku, Paul Pogba and Alexis Sánchez have not really worked out would be an understatement.
Harry Maguire is doing rather better, without providing the instant backbone Van Dijk brought to Liverpool.
John Stones appears to be finding it difficult to live up to Guardiola’s expectations at City, and though Aymeric Laporte inspires more confidence his long-term injury this season has cost his club points.
Liverpool’s miserly defensive record over the past two seasons does not quite tell its own story since Alisson arrived half a season after Van Dijk and the goalkeeper not only fixed a problem area but went on to prove a model of consistency.
Statistics show Alisson has one of the best shot-stopping ratios around, though they also indicate he faces fewer shots per game than most Premier League goalkeepers.
However the credit is apportioned, Liverpool’s goals conceded column has become seriously impressive in the past two seasons, particularly for a club that sometimes had a habit of giving goals away cheaply.
This season the defence has been breached 15 times in 25 games. For purposes of comparison, second-placed City have conceded 29 times, just over a goal a game, the same as Manchester United.
The meanest defence in the Premier League outside Anfield belongs to Sheffield United, with 24 goals against after 26 matches. Last season, though City were champions by a point, they conceded 23 goals to Liverpool’s 22, with Chelsea and Spurs joint next best on 39.
When Van Dijk arrived mid-season Liverpool finished with 38 goals conceded, 10 more than José Mourinho’s Manchester United. The centre-half might not have improved Liverpool’s defensive efficiency all by himself – he obviously has teammates around him to help – though if you had to pick a one-man defence from the options available there is no doubt where most would look.
Van Dijk has been a wonderful signing even at a record-breaking price. He is the player Liverpool fans would least like to see leave, precisely because he would not only walk into any team in the world but would improve them.