Virgil van Dijk is the best defender the Premier League has ever seen. There, I said it.
Since arriving on Merseyside in January 2018, Liverpool transformed from top-four challengers to a side that won every major trophy available – along with the help of the arrival of Alison Becker and Fabinho.
Jurgen Klopp’s pursuit of Van Dijk caused uproar in the summer of 2017 and it looked as though the Reds would not get their man. Ultimately, that was obviously not the case. A short wait until January and £75m later, Liverpool had signed the best.
While he has become truly beloved on Merseyside, it is confusing to see how Van Dijk is often treated with a lack of affection back in the Netherlands. The defender is the captain of his country and represents them with pride at every opportunity, but still regularly receives over-the-top criticism from pundits and ex-professionals in his homeland.
Former defender turned analyst Johan Derksen was just the latest to go in on Van Dijk, during the September international break.
“Can he still handle the level?” Derksen said, via Voetbalzone. “No, he’s on his last legs. I never thought of him as a star. He looks good, but I don’t think he’s a very good defender. He was only strong in the air.”
Maybe it is time for Van Dijk to hang his boots up for his nation and concentrate fully on his Liverpool career – where he is now captain of the club.
Of course, with Euro 2024 coming up next summer, there will be no retirement from the former European Footballer of the Year imminently, but he may well consider his future after the tournament in Germany.
Marco Van Basten was scathing in his assessment of Van Dijk back in March.
“He makes noise, but he doesn’t say anything,” the Dutch legend told Ziggo Sport, via VI.
“He is not clear. A good captain thinks aloud, makes it clear what is going on. He stays in between. He creates chaos. That leads to misunderstandings. That is what you, as a captain, must prevent.
“In the dressing room he is good, football tactically and technically, not. You need another gentleman on the field. This has nothing to do with that injury, this has to do with leadership. He makes noise, but he says nothing. That’s true. This is in you. This is wanting to win at all costs.”
© ProShots – Virgil van Dijk
Van Dijk responded to the criticism and believes the standards he had formerly set have not helped him after his form dipped last season.
One thing that has always been impressive with Van Dijk as a person is his honesty in the media and his willingness to answer difficult questions. He did not shy away from questions from journalists about Dutch legends ripping into him.
He took it on the chin, answered the questions and moved on, as any captain should.
The Reds skipper knows better than anyone that last seasons form was not his best, far from it, but he was still a lot more capable than plenty others Premier League defenders.
A problem for Van Dijk now is that the number four set the bar ridiculously high and now anything less than that is unacceptable for pundits and rival fans. In reality, it is hard to expect Van Dijk to perform at the level he was at before rupturing his ACL in October 2020.
The injury left Van Dijk looking more human than he previously did. The Reds captain was untouchable at one stage in his career. It was even a running joke that he did not even get dribbled past for an entire season.
That is how good he was.
Because of his ridiculous talent and the impossible standards he set over the last five years, every mistake – no matter how small – is now being highlighted and ridiculed by rival fans.
Even at 32, post injury, Van Dijk would still walk into every side in England’s top flight. No manager would turn him down.
In the early stages of the 2023/24 campaign, Van Dijk has looked a little closer to his best. The defender now has added pressure and motivation to succeed as he took over from Jordan Henderson as captain.
Upon being given the armband, Jurgen Klopp described the defender as having “everything to wish for to be a captain of a football club”.
If the Netherlands don’t appreciate him, he can leave them, focus on his club duties and maybe even prolong his career in doing so.
There is a new era at Anfield and the Dutchman wants to be at the heart of it, lifting trophies as club captain. Starting with this season.