Southampton defender has all the attributes to justify his extortionate £75 million transfer fee
If Van Dijk is tasked with being flawless, Liverpool have got the perfect addition
Liverpool’s best centre-back of this millennium can be commendably candid about some of the others. Jamie Carragher has ignored the footballing law of omerta. He has criticised colleagues and successors alike. His verdict on Virgil van Dijk was instructive, then.
“Better in the air than me, quicker than me, more composed and doesn't score own goals!” tweeted the man who made 737 appearances for Liverpool. At £75 million (Dh371m), perhaps Van Dijk ought to be all of those things. The fee is inescapable, and not just because Jurgen Klopp said last year about the prospect of £100 million players: “The day that this is football, I’m not in a job anymore.”
When he joins from Southampton on January 1, Van Dijk will be 50 per cent more expensive than any centre-back ever. It is quite a sum to pay for a 26 year old who has never finished in the top five of any of the five major leagues or played in a major international tournament or the Uefa Champions League’s knockout stages. It is also roughly the amount Liverpool have paid for every central defender they have acquired this century which, even accounting for the inflation in fees, is remarkable.
Joel Matip, Ragnar Klavan, Joe Gomez, Dejan Lovren, Mamadou Sakho, Kolo Toure, Tiago Ilori, Sotirios Kyrgiakos, Daniel Agger, Martin Skrtel, Danny Wilson, Gabriel Paletta and Mauricio Pellegrino form a mixed bag. Agger and Matip are successes and Gomez potentially another, but too many others have been found wanting. Buying many has proved a false economy. Signing some has simply been a mistake. Others, meanwhile, would not suit Klopp’s pressing game. Very few centre-backs do, a reason why the prices for the rarities have escalated.
Because it can make sense to pay over the odds for the right player. Liverpool have taken the opposing approach too many times over the years, the cheaper option proving the wrong option. Van Dijk has scarcely resembled a £75 million footballer in his unhappy final half-season at Southampton but he will add height to a side who have had set-piece problems. He is fast enough to defend one on one, necessitated by a high defensive line and full-backs who double up as wingers, comfortably good enough on the ball to be a constructive as well as a defensive presence and has the magnetism that means the ball seems attracted to him.
His debut could come in next Friday’s Merseyside derby. He could be defined by such games. Liverpool have eight clean sheets in 14, but a capacity to concede against the best, especially away from home. They let in three at Arsenal and Sevilla, four at Tottenham Hotspur and five at Manchester City. Lovren’s horror show at Wembley underlined the need for an upgrade. Rather than accepting there are structural issues, Klopp has often attributed setbacks to individual errors.
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If Van Dijk is tasked with being flawless, Klopp has got his perfect addition. The German has shown a reluctance to compromise. Unlike some of his predecessors, he will not scroll ever further down shortlists to make a signing. He could not get his first choice in the summer, so he returned for him. He will also have to wait for Naby Keita, another intended summer acquisition set to debut in 2018. When the Leipzig midfielder eventually arrives, his side will have a still more formidable look.
Factor in the astonishing impact made by Mohamed Salah and Liverpool could scarcely do more in terms of recruitment to persuade Philippe Coutinho to stay if and when Barcelona come calling again.
Van Dijk is tasked with providing a solid base behind a fearsome attacking unit. If he does, his fee may not seem so extortionate.