It took 6 months longer than desired, owing to a complaint from Southampton about Liverpool's less than aboveboard negotiation practices, but the Reds have finally got their man, convincing Virgil van Dijk to choose Anfield over the Etihad. The centre half is expected to arrive on Merseyside on January 1st in a £75M deal after Jürgen Klopp’s Reds beat out Pep Guardiola and the runaway league leaders for the Southampton star’s signature. He will arrive as a consensus choice as one of the Premier League’s top five centre halves and will now have the chance with Liverpool to establish himself as the league’s best at his position for years to come.
DOB: 8/7/91 (25) | Height: 6’4" (1.93 meters)
2016-17 Season: 30 appearances, 4 goals
Strengths: Calm under pressure, composed on the ball, and dominant in the air. As one of the Premier League’s top centre halves over the past two seasons, any list of Van Dijk’s strengths is going to read like a list of ideal defender traits. There’s a reason, after all, why both Chelsea and Manchester City—the latter strong favourites to win the league this season, while the former sit solidly in the top four—also targeted Van Dijk as their first choice centre half. There was a reason those two clubs as well as Liverpool were willing to pay upwards of £75M for his services.
Van Dijk’s composure and tactical sense, though, is perhaps his biggest strength, more so even than his impressive physical talents. His calmness both on and off the ball, his ability to read the game in front of him and to position himself to snuff out danger before it happens, and his ability to keep a level head when the intensity level ramps up and the game begins to get frantic. He can outmuscle any forward in the air, has enough pace to keep up with all but the speediest wingers when isolated, and has the ball skills to launch counter-attacks or cycle possession as needed, but all of that is built on an unimpeachable tactical foundation and a calm and collected mentality, one that can spread to his teammates.
Along with Joël Matip, Liverpool can expect to head into next season with two of the Premier League’s defenders least prone to becoming flustered when pressure mounts or momentum shifts. If he plays instead with Dejan Lovren, his calming presence and ability to manage the backline should help to anchor the at times excitable Croatian. When it is Matip and Van Dijk paired, the club will also have one of the tallest centre half partnerships not only in England but in the game, but a partnership that despite its height remains highly skilled on the ball, able to pass themselves out of danger and to build play from the back.
Beyond his composure, though, and beyond his reading of the game and his ability on the ball, Van Dijk is as close to the ideal of the centre half as you’re likely to find. Tall, powerful, strong in the air, and able to build up a decent head of steam when necessary, he will almost always keep himself on the right side of play and opposition players, looking to shut down attacks by overpowering opponents while staying on his feet. His presence should also vastly improve Liverpool’s ability on set pieces, both in defence where they have often struggled and in attack, as Van Dijk scored seven goals for Southampton in his two seasons with them.
Weaknesses: You don’t fetch a £75M transfer fee while being the top defensive target of three Champions League clubs in England with many, or even maybe any, glaring, significant weaknesses to your game. Still, there are times when his technical skill on the ball can lead Van Dijk astray, pulling him out of position as he seeks to get himself more involved on the game. Liverpool fans saw that last season at times with presumptive partner Matip, and they’ve seen it in recent seasons from former players like Daniel Agger.
In Van Dijk, they are getting a player similarly skilled on the ball, to the point he might not look out of place in midfield. And similarly they are getting a player who at times will get caught up in a break or sustained spell of possession that leads to him being woefully out of position. This can especially be a problem for Van Dijk if the rest of the side is struggling—in the same way a frustrated forward may drop ever deeper when his side struggles on the ball, Van Dijk can push ever higher up the pitch if the players ahead of him are struggling to influence the game.
Beyond that, for the kind of fee Liverpool will be paying, it can’t entirely be ignored that he spent half of the 2016-17 season sidelined with an ankle injury. It’s not the sort of injury that should be an ongoing concern, and Van Dijk’s career injury record is exemplary, but given Liverpool’s fitness issues under Klopp any extended layoff for a big new signing has to at least give pause. The good news, though, is that outside of his current four-month layoff, in his entire senior career Van Dijk missed just one game with Celtic due to an unspecified knock and seven games with Groningen after having his appendix removed. It’s also worth noting that having played for Southampton, Celtic, and Groningen before now, he has limited experience in Europe and with regularly playing twice a week as he will be expected to in 2017-18.
Summation: Virgil van Dijk is one of the Premier League’s top five defenders. Playing for one of the top clubs, he has the chance now to establish himself as the league’s best centre half, and that he was also the top defensive target for Pep Guardiola at Manchester City and Antonio Conte and Chelsea but that Liverpool managed in the end to win his signature is noteworthy. It is an achievement, a coup, and Van Dijk is the kind of marquee signing—or signal of intent—that so many Liverpool fans say they’re always looking for.
In Van Dijk, Fenway Sports Group have backed Jürgen Klopp throughout a protracted transfer saga to sign a world class centre half and Klopp has done his part, convincing that world class signing to choose Liverpool over City and Chelsea. This truly is a signal of intent signing, perhaps Liverpool’s biggest and most impressive such move of the entire Premier League era. This is a very, very big deal for the club. This is a reason to celebrate.