🗣 “Virgil van Dijk. Too big. Too fast. Loves fighting. Smells nice. He runs past you and you’re like ‘ooh’ smelling him.”
– Troy Deeney, Circa 2018
He might have only been with Liverpool for the better part of a year, but both fans and critics describe Virgil van Dijk using superlatives – Gargantuan. A cult hero. Towering. A buff Lin Manuel Miranda. Unshakeable. Unflappable. Uncompromising. The praise keeps flowing.
But if you were to describe Virgil van Dijk with just one word, it would be Colossus. And for good reason. Similar to how the Colossus stood over the Rhodesian harbour, overseeing the entry and exit of ships, the towering defender from the Netherlands commands composure, comprehensively constructing a cohesive defense and is often seen initiating the slick counter-attacking football that the Anfield faithful call poetry in motion. It’s been a solid season for the lad from Breda so far. Last week, he captained the Oranje to the semifinals of the Nations League, volleying home a 90th-minute equalizer against Germany. His influence in the dressing room got him voted in as third choice captain for The Reds despite only joining the club last winter. However, all this pales in comparison to his greatest achievement: he made Dejan Lovren look good!
With consistent performances week in and week out, complemented by the omnipresent attacking threat, van Dijk has silenced his critics and has proved himself worthy of that record transfer sum.
However, things weren’t always so rosy for the lad born and brought up in the picturesque southern city of Breda. If you somehow invented a time machine to go back 11 years, you might meet a 16-year-old Virgil washing pots at a certain Oncle Jean restaurant in Breda, If you were lucky, you’d hear the manager, a certain Jacques Lips tell him to give up his dreams and work there, for he’d at least make some money there. Today, he eats humble pie as he acknowledges the quality of his ex-employee.
“Nobody at this place has ever forgotten Virgil. He was a great lad. In fact, we’ve always kept his name and phone number in our workbook for temps. His name and number are still there. I’ve tried to call him. No not to ask him to come back, I just want to congratulate him. I’m so proud of him. He’s now the £75m man in the world of football.”
– Jacques Lips.
While you might have rolled your eyes at Jacques Lips’ reservations today, you might have agreed with him then. Despite training hard and giving it everything he had, Virgil would never make it big at his neighbouring club, Willem II. He was deemed unfit to play, the coach thought he was too small and slow. This was compounded by the defender getting hospitalised due to an abdominal issue. After just one season, he left for Groningen in 2010 on a free transfer. One can imagine the 17-year-old youth, travelling 225 km away to live his dream, despite being told he wasn’t good enough.
However, things started to look brighter with the Eredivisie side. His recovery was called a miracle by his overjoyed parents. He suddenly became bigger and a lot faster, as puberty him like a truck. For him, it was a fresh start. Deployed as a striker, he constantly ruffled the opposition defence whenever he was brought on, by virtue of his physique and finesse.
“We’d put Virgil on for the last 10, 15, 20 minutes and he would wreak havoc among the opponents.
He was quite effective. He did a great job for us as he was just so powerful, allowing him to hold the ball up.
Virgil was also good with the ball at his feet so he was a useful weapon when we needed him.”
– Tim Sparv, who was his teammate at Groningen.
Virgil made good of his opportunity, scoring 5 goals during his short stint at attack before the club felt his attributes could be put to greater use in defence. His physicality was his greatest asset, and he put in the shift too, training with his teammates to build his body when he really didn’t need to. He was calm and composed, winning aerial balls with ease. His speed and sense of direction helped him too, allowing him to track back and win the ball in case of a rare error. Groningen, however, was not where he grew into his position as a natural leader. That was for another page in the chapter he was writing into the book of football.
In the summer of 2013, Virgil signed for Celtic at a fee reported to be at around £1.5million. Celtic were overjoyed, they hardly expected it to be this easy. In the words of Neil Lennon, who brought him to Celtic:
“When I saw him playing for Groningen, he used to bring the ball out of defence, hit the ball 40-50 yards on a sixpence to the winger. He was attacking the ball in both boxes. I thought: ‘There must be English scouts watching this guy’. In the end, we got him for just over £1.5 million.I couldn’t believe my luck really. On the first day when we got him into training I said: ‘Look, enjoy yourself here, you’ll not be here long’.”
Virgil did stick around for two seasons at Celtic and matured into the player we see today. He was influential in both seasons, helping them win two consecutive titles. He led the team from the back, scored freekicks for fun and was a constant threat. When Celtic met Barcelona in October 2013, they might have lost 1-0, but the 22-year old’s performance against the likes of Neymar and Alexis Sanchez was the talk of the town.
However, his time at Celtic wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. Ronny Deilla, then coach, had issues with his attitude. He felt that the exciting new prospect, despite having the potential, needed to stop being complacent. He made that clear to Virgil a few training sessions in. In response, Virgil van Dijk went on to do what Virgil van Dijk did, and towards the end of his period in the Scottish Premiership, was named in the Scottish Team Of The Year twice running. When he told Ronny about his decision to leave, the coach was left with nothing but praise for the Number 4:
“When he said he was going I told him not to go to Southampton or Sunderland but straight to Manchester City or United. I said to him he was that good. I told City and they regret it now.”
In 2015, Virgil van Dijk signed a contract with Southampton and the rest, as they say, is history.
Nobody really needs stats to acknowledge the importance of Virgil in the Liverpool defence, but I’ll just throw in one that emphasises his embodiment in the team.
Liverpool Defensive Numbers:
Pre- van Dijk (2017/18) – 28 Goals Against in 23 Games – 1.22 GA/Game
Post- van Dijk (2017/18) -10 Goals Against in 15 Games – 0.66 GA/Game
In the 2017-18 season, before -van Dijk era, Liverpool were languishing with a defence that was abysmal, to say the least. There was a centre-back problem, and it was not going anywhere. Gomez was inexperienced and injured, the jury was still out on Lovren, his woeful performance against Harry Kane doing him no favours. Joel Matip was hit and miss. Ragnar Klavan, despite being solid, was not exactly what the Kop had in mind. Opposition teams had scored 28 goals against them in 23 games, averaging 1.22 goals per game. Enter van Dijk, and the numbers dropped considerably to 0.66 goals per game. With 75 million, Klopp effectively doubled the capability of the defence.
Today, at 26, Virgil van Dijk stands in a place I’m not sure even his 16-year-old self would have dreamed of. Last weekend, he played an important part (role?) as Liverpool won a smash and grab fixture at Watford to remain unbeaten so far this season. The weekend before that, he scored to send the Netherlands to Portugal and was seen consoling a distressed referee barely recovering from personal tragedy, a class act. He’s easily up there with the world’s best defenders on current form, and many pundits still feel we haven’t seen the best of him yet.
Today, van Dijk is seen as an integral part in the resurrection of two teams: Liverpool, who are still eyeing that elusive silverware, and the Netherlands national team, who want to put the disappointing few years behind them. Prospects for both teams look promising, and if there is one man capable of leading both teams from the back, both literally and figuratively, it is the giant of a Dutchman with the number four emblazoned on his back.
Feature Image via Getty
van Dijk numbers against Watford via BET 365
van Dijk Shirt in restaurant via Mirror
Neil Lennon and VVD image via The Scottish Sun
More from Ganapathi Ramanathan here
Read More | Oh Captain, My Captain? |
Read More | Andy Robertson – To Hull And Back |
Read More | Mo Salah: The King Of Egypt |
Read More | Liverpool’s Transfer Window – Is This Their Year?|
Read More | Kenny Dalglish – The King Of The Kop |