Virgil van Dijk is a majestic centre-back, one of the finest in the Premier League. Southampton, however, are a struggling team.
Firmly mid-table, the Saints are just eight points above the relegation zone. They were just eliminated from the Europa League because they couldn’t beat Hapoel Be’er Sheva at home. Van Dijk even scored a 91st minute equaliser in the game, but it wasn’t enough.
There was rumoured interest in the 25-year-old Dutchman from some big clubs this summer, but Southampton managed to hold onto their man, thanks mostly to handing him a new contract in May. This show of loyalty (and the extra cost it attached to him) meant clubs were happy to leave him be for now.
But now Southampton have failed to build on last season and appear to be struggling, while Van Dijk remains as spectacular as ever, and with a few top clubs around the country desperately in need of a top-class centre-back, those rumours will return in force.
There are three big clubs in particular that are crying out for a centre-back in the mould of Van Dijk – that is to say, an amazing ball-playing centre-back who can dominate in the air as easily as he can spray the ball around on the ground.
Who are these clubs? And which would suit him best? Well…
The Red Devils have struggled this season, showing nothing like the form and consistency that a side of their cost should have. Their finest performances have come in the Europa League or against similarly lesser profile Premier League sides.
Sure, part of this is down to José Mourinho taking two months to figure out his best XI, but a lot of it is because they just cannot stop leaking goals. Time was, a Mourinho side could score once and be happy to sit on that lead. Ideally they’d get more, but they could do with one.
Manchester United defenders ranked by average defensive actions in the Premier League this season.
Now they concede so often that’s not enough. Sure, Eric Bailly has been a revelation – but who to partner him with? Daley Blind has the ball-playing skills to start attacks but freezes when asked to react quickly to danger.
Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo are playing well right now but with the caveat that it feels as though an injury or terrible mistake is just around the corner. Chris Smalling is just not very good. Van Dijk would be a big upgrade over all of these men and would be a great partner to Bailly.
The Reds have defensive problems. This much is evident. They have made eight defensive errors this season, the joint-third most in the league. To make matters worse, five of those errors have led to goals – the second most in the league.
Liverpool have made 8 defensive errors this season, with 5 leading to a goal.
More than just general mistakes is a weakness whenever they play. There’s never any sort of sensation that yes, this is a solid side that knows how to defend and will be comfortable shutting an opponent out. Klopp’s football has always carried with it an element of risk, and when the team’s high press isn’t fully functional, the defence is exposed to 1v1 duels.
When defenders can’t win those duels, or deal with passes and crosses comfortably, problems occur. Van Dijk has won 21 tackles at a 51% success rate, and with 161 defensive actions (7th among all Premier League players this season) he is more than adept at the exact kind of defending Liverpool need. He could be the calming presence that none of the Reds defenders are currently able to be.
The Sky Blues are struggling to fully adapt to Pep Guardiola’s style of football. Whether that is through players not having the quality needed to participate in Pep’s philosophy, or whether it’s down to simply not having enough training time due to fixture congestion caused by Champions League, it’s happening and manifesting through defensive weakness.
Like Liverpool, City have made eight defensive errors. Only three have led to a goal, but there’s definitely a sense you can get at them. Jamie Vardy admitted as much after mangling City with a hat-trick in Leicester’s 4-0 demolition.
Van Dijk has won an impressive 76% of his aerial duels.
John Stones is a promising young defender, but at 22 he cannot lead a defence. Nicolas Otamendi is a rugged warrior, but is injury and card prone. City need a powerful and calming presence at the back, a defender who can play next to Stones and guide the youngster. Someone who can step out of the back with the ball at his feet and participate in City’s attacks.
Van Dijk’s 68 successful aerial duels is the most among defenders in the Premier League this season, and his ratio of 76% illustrates his efficiency. Through all Guardiola’s teams, a centre-back who can dominate in the air has been essential and his 100% take-on success shows that he is a good judge of where and when to step into midfield.
While United could use his excellence, Mourinho’s talent for coaching defenders has seen men like Jones and Rojo actually become useful. There is a need for Van Dijk, but it’s not a crucial one. Similarly all Guardiola needs is a fit Vincent Kompany and an unsuspended Otamendi (moreover his real need is at full-back).
Meanwhile, Liverpool are crying out for a player of Van Dijk’s exact skill-set. A ball-playing defender who can dominate in the air and guide a back-line. He will be atrociously expensive, for sure, but Liverpool only have one other gaping hole in their team (defensive midfielder).
Even the supposed problem position of goalkeeper would be less of an issue with Van Dijk in the side. His calming presence would radiate out to Loris Karius, making the young German less apprehensive and nervous. Van Dijk could fill the role that Mats Hummels did for Klopp’s incredible Borussia Dortmund side, that managed to unseat Bayern Munich for a couple of glorious years.
Given the Reds’ penchant for signing players from Southampton (the current count stands at 5 players for a combined £95.5 million) it makes so much sense for Van Dijk to become the latest to make the long trip to Merseyside. It’s not that he alone would return the glory days to Liverpool, but he could definitely help.