It takes a lot to stop Liverpool at the moment. Jurgen Klopp’s side had scored 14 goals in their last four outings before Saturday’s trip to St. Mary’s Stadium to face Southampton. They are the Premier League’s top scorers and were deep in their groove as they arrived on the south coast. The Reds found Virgil van Dijk in their way, though.
Of course, Van Dijk cannot be solely credited with earning Southampton a goalless draw on Saturday, but the Dutch defender deserves more credit than anyone else. The 25-year-old was a one-man wall, keeping Philippe Coutinho, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino at bay.
Saints manager Claude Puel got his defensive strategy spot on, but it wouldn’t have worked without Van Dijk marshalling his back four.
Now the question is not over Van Dijk’s quality but for how much longer Southampton can keep hold of him.
There’s a case to be made that he is now the best centre-back in the Premier League, which could be taken as a statement of his ability or an indictment on the lack of competition for that unofficial title. He was linked to Everton in the summer, per David Maddock of the Daily Mirror, but he is playing at a level higher than the Goodison Park club. The Dutchman should be aiming for the very top.
Liverpool and Arsenal are now the kind of teams being linked with a move for Van Dijk by fans on social media, with the former surely encouraged to chase his signature after his performance against them on Saturday. They aren’t the only side at top end of the Premier League that could use the Dutchman. Competition for his signature will be stiff, whether it’s this January or next summer.
Per Adam Leitch of the Southern Daily Echo, Puel addressed questions over the defender’s future after the draw with Liverpool:
We will see for the future.
For now he is with us and I am enjoying having this player with the squad and I hope for the future also.
The club want to keep a good ambition on this league and for the future. We will see.
I enjoy when all the players can improve because it’s the philosophy of the club like van Dijk, like all the young players of the team, all these players, and with all these many games to play different competitions with quality and to continue this work.
We will see the future if he can continue this work.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect about Van Dijk is that he is still getting better. Game after game, the Dutch defender is improving. He’s still only 25 and his best years are ahead of him, which is quite a thought.
Clubs might not just be fighting over the best centre-back in England in the next transfer window but the next best centre-back in Europe. His signing would be a strong investment in the future.
At Celtic, Van Dijk was prone to more than the odd lapse in concentration, but he has cut out those mistakes with Southampton. It confirms what many thought of the Dutchman when he was playing north of the border—that he was taking it easy in Scottish football, and his optimum level was a lot higher than he would regularly show for the Bhoys. In essence, he could get away with strolling through games.
Now we are seeing just how good he really is. The £13 million Southampton paid for Van Dijk looks like something of a bargain in hindsight, with Saints sure to rake in that fee and then some when the Dutchman is eventually prised from their hands.
So which club could use Van Dijk most?
Klopp has turned Liverpool into unlikely title challengers this season, but their defence is still their most glaring weakness. The Dutch centre-back would appear to be a natural transfer target, with Van Dijk comfortable on the ball and at ease with bringing it out from the back. That would see him fit well into the German’s team.
Manchester United are also in desperate need of a strong, ball-playing centre-back to play alongside Eric Bailly, as Chris Smalling continues to struggle under manager Jose Mourinho. Van Dijk will command a hefty fee, but if there’s one club that wouldn’t balk at that it’s the Old Trafford outfit.
For Southampton, concern over the inevitable interest in Van Dijk goes beyond just how much they would miss the Dutchman on the pitch. The St. Mary’s Stadium side have forged a reputation for themselves as the shrewdest transfer-market operators in the Premier League. They just keep finding talent in places no-one else can.
But that has made them a selling club in recent years, with Liverpool in particular making a habit of raiding Southampton for their best players. They could do it again by luring Van Dijk to Anfield.
How much longer can Saints keep finding this kind of talent, though? There is an element of fortune to their transfer success, so will their luck finally run out if (most likely when) Van Dijk leaves?
If it doesn’t, perhaps those turning to Southampton in the transfer market should be looking at more than just their players. The south-coast club clearly have an exceptional off-the-field infrastructure which allows them to get ahead of the competition. It might not be long before another club attempts to poach that rather than one of their players.
For now, however, Van Dijk is just the latest product off the Southampton talent conveyor belt. He is arguably the most complete player they have ever brought to market. The Dutch defender is capable of playing at the elite level of the game. A few more performances such as the one he turned in on Saturday, and he might even jump another level in terms of clubs pursuing him.
One wonders if Barcelona and Real Madrid have sent a scout to the south coast yet.