In the two years since he joined Liverpool for a record-breaking fee, Virgil van Dijk has turned defending into a box-office attraction.
£75million is a lot of money. When Liverpool splashed out the unprecedented sum for the Southampton centre-back in January 2018, the reaction was mixed.
“It sounds like a fantastic deal for Southampton,” said a sceptical Gary Neville, in awe at the “incredible amount of money” handed over.
Speaking on BBC 5 Live, Alan Shearer went even further.
“Van Dijk is a good player, yes,” he said. “But for £75million? No, he’s not worth it at all.”
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and it’s not big or clever to point out how wrong those pundits were.
But Van Dijk’s success over the last two years, proving himself to be one of the world’s best players, has contradicted the sceptics in more than just the obvious ways.
Because while Van Dijk has more than repaid Liverpool’s investment with performances, points and a big fat Champions League trophy, he has provided another kind of value too — perhaps in a way the Liverpool decision-makers weren’t expecting.
There’s a reason why that £75million fee was so eye-watering at the time.
Today, Van Dijk is only the 15th most expensive footballer in history, but in January 2018 he was the world’s most expensive defender — before Man United got rather less of a bargain in Harry Maguire.
And defenders simply aren’t supposed to cost that much.
It’s not that they don’t provide value to a team, of course. It’s that attacking players, much more than defenders or goalkeepers, tend to offer value beyond their on-pitch contributions.
When Juventus paid Real Madrid some £88million for a 33-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo, there was less scepticism than there was for Van Dijk’s transfer six months prior.
Why? Not because a 33-year-old Ronaldo was better than a 26-year-old Van Dijk but because attacking players like Ronaldo are inherently glamorous, resulting in fan interest, ticket sales, shirt sales and all those other dull but actually rather important things.
Fans bought more than half a million Juventus shirts in the 24 hours after Ronaldo’s unveiling.
At the time, Liverpool’s capture of Van Dijk looked like a very different piece of business to Juve’s Ronaldo deal. It was, on the face of it, the very opposite of glamour.
Out the door went Coutinho, one of Liverpool’s box-office attractions, a global star and the third most popular name on replica Liverpool shirts.
In came a defender from a mid-table club.
Even Southampton didn’t see that much X-factor in their former centre-back. When the South Coast club made a weird superhero cartoon to launch its 2017–18 kit, the ‘characters’ were Manolo Gabbiadini, Ryan Bertrand, Fraser Forster and Maya Yoshida.
Swapping Coutinho for Van Dijk (and keeping a chunk of spare change) was like selling a Rolex to buy double glazing. It might not do much for your social status, but it’s probably going to benefit you in the long run.
Because while defenders can do a lot of useful things, sell you shirts they cannot. At least, until Virgil van Dijk came along they couldn’t.
When Liverpool released their new kits for the 2019-20 season, fan site This Is Anfield revealed that the most popular name on the back of the new jerseys was… ‘Virgil’.
The usual suspects, Salah, Mane and Firmino, took the next three spots.
When you think about that for a moment, it’s actually quite incredible. Through a combination of talent and charisma, Van Dijk has managed to turn defending from a kind of necessary mundanity into something thrilling, relatable and ultimately marketable.
His playmaking abilities certainly help. Against Sheffield United on Thursday, his pinpoint long ball flummoxed George Baldock enough to send him to the ground, leading to Mohamed Salah’s opener. It’s a trick he keeps pulling again and again.
But that’s clearly not the whole story.
While Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold have become some of Liverpool’s most popular players — deservedly so — their star power obviously comes from their attacking play and ludicrous number of assists.
Van Dijk, for all his long passes and aerial threat at corners, has turned actual old-school defending into something show-stopping. Like a Coutinho step-over or free-kick used to be.
With the clock ticking into first-half stoppage time against the Blades, Van Dijk executed a flawless sliding block to thwart a dangerous counter-attack.
Lys Mousset had David McGoldrick unmarked to his left-hand side, but the defender managed to time his slide to perfection and scoop the ball back into an area of Liverpool players.
It was a calm, authoritative decision typical of Van Dijk, but it was still one of the biggest ‘wow’ moments of a close-fought first half. The applause that followed was thunderous.
Calm as you like… Nothing gets past Virgil Van Dijk. pic.twitter.com/n9NcKGLOxX
— Kloppholic (@Kloppholic) January 2, 2020
And yet, even when you see that kind of magic, it’s hard to work out the exact recipe that makes Van Dijk such a genuine superstar, and why he’s one of the few defenders in football who can legitimately claim that status.
Some of it is surely superficial. Van Dijk’s immense stature and square jaw would always make him more of an idol than Harry Maguire and his square head, regardless of footballing ability.
And despite his very sincere reasons for choosing it, the simple ‘Virgil’ on his shirt carries a kind of Brazilian gravitas. (You suspect his defensive partner couldn’t pull off ‘Joe’ in quite the same way.)
But when you combine the aesthetic appeal of Van Dijk with those world-class defensive abilities, and when you combine those defensive abilities with those attacking sensibilities, you’ve basically got a defensive version of Cristiano Ronaldo. The full package. The player and the persona.
Perhaps £75million really was too much for a defender. But Van Dijk has simply decided to be more than that.