Virgil Van Dijk is Liverpool’s Eric Cantona and Nemanja Vidic rolled into one as he leads Jurgen Klopp towards Premier League title

  • Dutchman turning Klopp’s also-rans into potential trophy winners
  • Some fans praising big-money signing as club’s best ever defender
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 January, 2019, 3:03pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 January, 2019, 3:53pm

Seven minutes of Liverpool’s game against Arsenal on Saturday had passed when Anfield’s Kop went down a gear to serenade arguably their best player.

“He’s a centre-half, he’s a number four,” sang the terrace to the tune of Dirty Old Town, written by Salfordian Ewan MacColl.

“Watch him defend, and we watch him score, he’ll pass the ball, calm as you like, he’s Virgil van Dijk, he’s Virgil van Dijk.”

It was almost a year since the Dutchman signed from Southampton for £75 million (US$95.6 million), a world record for a defender.

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The fee was questioned and derided, yet an Anfield source tells the South China Morning Post that Liverpool were prepared to pay even more.

This was the first time that Klopp’s Liverpool didn’t settle for second or third choice with one of their transfer targets.

In 2006, Liverpool wanted Nemanja Vidic, who instead chose Manchester United. Liverpool got Daniel Agger instead, a good defender, but not in Vidic’s class.

Mike Gordon, a hugely influential force behind the scenes at Anfield, urged patience and for Liverpool to push harder for Van Dijk.

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That upset Southampton in June 2017 and Liverpool issued an apology after the former complained to the Premier League about the latter’s conduct.

Burnley’s Michael Keane was then strongly linked with Liverpool, who were desperate to improve their defence. But the club felt only Van Dijk could transform them, even if they had to wait six months for him and the team suffered in the short term. Liverpool returned six months later, got their man and they’ve called it right.

Unlike some of Klopp’s other signings, Van Dijk needed no settling-in period and immediately impressed, scoring on his debut against Everton in the FA Cup.

By the end of the 2018, he was the best defender in the league’s best defence for the league’s best team.

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While Klopp’s attackers are lauded, the defence with Van Dijk at the heart has been vital. Against Wolves on December 21, the 27-year-old was sublime against a very good side.

At one point, the rapid Adama Traore tried to take on Van Dijk. Instead, Liverpool’s No 4 beat Traore with his pace, then strength, keeping possession. He scored his first Premier League goal that night.

Before he moved to Anfield, Liverpool legend Graeme Souness said Van Dijk always looked like he had more, that he could jump higher and run faster, that he made everything look easy.

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The fans adore him; Peter Hooton, a lifelong Liverpool fan and lead singer of British band The Farm explains why.

“He’s unbelievable,” Hooton said. “I asked my dad if it’s the same as when Ron Yeats came into the team and he said, ‘No, he’s even better’. He’s the perfect centre back.

Yeats’ signing transformed Bill Shankly’s team in the 1960s.

“I saw him [Van Dijk] playing for Celtic a few years ago and he was head and shoulders above anyone,” Hooton added. “He didn’t even sweat and I couldn’t understand why nobody had come in for him.

“Of course, he has to win something and he has to prove himself over a number of seasons like [Alan] Hansen and [Mark] Lawrenson, but if I was to pick a centre half from my all-time favourite Liverpool team, Van Dijk would be the first. He’s got everything. He was a striker as a kid and you can see him creeping forward during games.

“I saw some Southampton fans saying that when he played there, he would get bored and drift into midfield and attack because he wants to be by the action. The two goals he scored for Holland against Germany were striker’s goals.”

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In the Premier League this season, only Leicester’s Wes Morgan has won a higher percentage of tackles than Van Dijk’s 95 per cent.

Stephen F. Kelly, author of a dozen Liverpool books, is equally eulogistic.

“He’s probably the best defender I’ve seen at Liverpool and I’ve seen every one since Ron Yeats in the ’60s,” Kelly said.

“He’s as good as Yeats, Hansen and Lawrenson. He’s got presence, he’s composed, agile, fast and he’s a leader who organises the defence and younger player like Andy Robertson, Joe Gomez or Trent Alexander-Arnold. Liverpool didn’t have that before. He’s scored a couple of goals too.”

After going behind at home for the first time in a year, Liverpool hammered Arsenal 5-1 to move nine points clear at the top of the league. It was a stroll for Van Dijk, with Roberto Firmino the star man after scoring a hat-trick.

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Working alongside Dejan Lovren, they limited Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, one of the most prolific strikers in the league, to seven touches all game – five from kick-offs. Like all the best captains, Van Dijk was protective of his colleagues, especially Mo Salah in the tunnel at half-time.

Van Dijk doesn’t do it all on his own. Georginio Wijnaldum provides a protective shield in front of the defenders. Klopp has done a fine job in tweaking him from a more attacking midfielder.

Liverpool’s next game is a first versus second clash against Manchester City. Liverpool are the form team, Van Dijk the form player receiving serious praise – one rival striker even said he was the best-smelling defender.

Avoid defeat in that match to retain the six-point lead at the top and Van Dijk can show he was the final piece in Klopp’s jigsaw, Liverpool’s Eric Cantona at the back, the man needed to turn his side from also-rans to one that actually wins a trophy.