When Liverpool shelled out £75m for Virgil Van Dijk in January 2018, it would be fair to say that the price tag raised a few eyebrows. However, when he received the award for UEFA’s men’s player of the year 2018/19, it was hardly a major shock.
Van Dijk’s rise has been nothing short of astonishing. A mere five years ago, aged 23, the Dutchman was plying his trade in Scottish football with Celtic. Now a Champions League winner, he looks set to be part of Liverpool’s first ever Premier League title triumph this season, and he is arguably the Red’s most important player.
Jurgen Klopp made an immediate impression when taking over on Merseyside; his high-tempo gegenpressing style of play winning over many fans as the club narrowly missed out in the finals of the League Cup and the Europa League. It was clear that Liverpool were on the up, but a complete lack of defensive organisation was costing them dearly.
Van Dijk, who’s performances for Southampton were earning rave reviews from local fans but were perhaps going slightly under the radar in the bigger picture, was the solution to all of their problems.
After a dream debut where his late header beat local rivals Everton in an FA Cup tie, he has barely put a foot wrong in his two years at the club so far, and his presence almost immediately transformed Liverpool from a defensively shaky side into an impressively solid unit.
The, after an unlucky defeat to Real Madrid in the Champions League final in Van Dijk’s debut season, their points total of 97 in the league last season, whilst being the third highest in Premier League history, was not enough to land them the title.
However, 2018/19 saw their sensational comeback against Barcelona that set them up for Champions League victory in the Wanda Metropolitano against Tottenham, and their rampant start to 2019/20 has all but guaranteed them that elusive first Premier League title already – and they won the Club World Cup last month.
To say that Van Dijk has been an indispensable member of the side would be an understatement, and what sets him apart from second placed Lionel Messi in my opinion was THAT second leg of the Champions League semi-final.
Messi had stolen the show with a ridiculous free kick in the first leg, but he was simply no match for Van Dijk at Anfield, who marshalled the defence and provided the perfect backbone for braces from Divock Origi and Georginio Wijnaldum to secure one of the greatest comebacks the competition has ever seen.
Van Dijk possesses an almost Zidane-like guile and elegance with an outstanding footballing brain – it was well documented that he went nearly a year without being dribbled past by a single opponent. Not only can he read the game, he is physically incredibly strong and can even lay claim to being one of the Premier League’s fastest players after he beat Wolves speed merchant Adama Traore in a footrace last season despite giving the Spaniard a significant head start.
He has only been truly recognised as a world-class player over the last couple of years but Arsenal legend Martin Keown has hailed him the greatest defender in Premier League history – high praise from a defender who was part of Arsenal famous Invincibles team of 2004.
And speaking of going a season unbeaten, Liverpool have currently played 20 league games this season and are still yet to lose. It would be foolish to say that they will definitely do it, but the opportunity for Van Dijk to go from legend to immortal seems painstakingly apparent this season.