Arsenal spent £35m on a defender this summer. For any player at the Emirates that’s almost unheard of; for a defender? Was Wenger okay? United spent a similar amount on another defender. Chelsea spent even more on a defender they sold a couple of years ago. Man City spent yet more on yet another potential partner for the ever-eroding Vincent Kompany.
Not that any of their signings are doing particularly badly right now. But looking back, should one of them inquired about Virgil van Dijk?
The endless well of Southampton talent seemed to have dried up in the summer, with Wanyama and Mané both boxed up and sent away from the south coast. Replacements looked modest – as they usually do at Southampton – but gone too was Ronald Koeman to pastures new, and so much money to play with that he spent a whole 25 million English pounds sterling of it on Yannick Bolasie.
Some fans thought luck would evade the Saints this season; with arguably their two best players now gone and flourishing elsewhere, maybe no Europe this time? Just mid-table mediocrity. But while Southampton may still have to settle for midtable – even compete with Wilshere-enhanced neighbours if momentum swings down the A31 – the defence has been as sound as ever at St Mary’s this season. And Virgil van Dijk has potentially established himself as one of the top five centre backs in the Premier League.
José Fonte has always been the rock at the back for Southampton, allegedly earning a fan in a certain José Mourinho over the summer, and over 150 odd games, he’s captained the club in three years. With Fonte now in his thirties, you’d think that van Dijk, the more mobile of the two, would be the one to spread the play and start attacks from the base, but the truth is that they both share that load. Perhaps surprisingly, Fonte on average plays the ball forwards more than van Dijk and has a higher pass completion rate.
It’s understandable though to label the Dutchman as a ball-playing defender, especially the way he steps out of defence to pass through the lines. His leggy dribbling style feels both calm and assured, and he has no trouble running at a pressing midfield, as demonstrated against the likes of Inter Milan in the Europa League. But that only tells half the story of him as a footballer. His physicality is key to his game, whether carrying the ball or defending set pieces, and his organisational nous has seen him named as captain in Fonte’s absence this season.
There are comparisons to how Koscielny and Mustafi play for Arsenal; Fonte and Koscielny have their leadership, age and positional sense in common, while van Dijk and Mustafi are both deployed as a more physical threat at the back. But while the bull-in-a-china-shop manner that Mustafi sometimes tackles with counteracts the more serene Koscielny, van Dijk displays incredible composure with his defending. He’s made more clearances than either of the Arsenal centre backs this season, and won considerably more aerial duels than not just Koscielny or Mustafi, but the likes of Toby Alderweireld, Eric Bailly or Wes Morgan.
His grace on the ball is reminiscent of a rugby union winger, but his presence at the back is similarly powerful. It’s a rare combination; in a world in which some fans still see defenders as either ball-playing or not – like we all have to pick between Stones or Terry – van Dijk combines the best of the two traits in a way that few other centre backs in the league do. At 25, his peak could be around the corner too.
Van Dijk was signed for just £13 million. As with most Southampton signings, it was an absolute steal that went under the radar, especially considering the fees that would be thrown around for similar players the following season. Maybe the ex-Celtic man was worth a bigger club taking a punt on this summer, though; he’s proving to be not just one of the best in the league, but one of the most complete defenders around.