Football Features

The origin story of Virgil van Dijk: From “slow right-back”, to a player all young defenders “must watch”

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 18:36, 2 April 2019

Becoming a professional athlete is never easy. Reaching the pinnacle of a major sport is even harder.

Today, Virgil van Dijk is rightfully lauded among the very best centre-backs in world football, with a strong case to be named as first among equals, but to get where he is now has been a real journey.

Nobody could have foreseen a teenage Van Dijk going on the career trajectory he’s been on and, to be fair, neither could the player in question. But just how has Van Dijk reached the top?

Humble beginnings

The 27-year-old Dutchman began at Willem II’s youth academy before swapping their surroundings for FC Groningen.

He never had it comfortable during his formative years. For starters, there were problems growing in size.

“My knee was a bit unstable. I had groin problems. I had so many problems but then I had proper rehab and was out for six weeks,” he recently told BBC Radio 5 Live. “After that, I started playing well.”

But it wasn’t in his now-usual central defensive position where a young Van Dijk was being deployed. Like with so many of his compatriots he’d move from another role. Ruud van Nistelrooy, for example, started in goal, which goes a long way to explain his ruthless feats in the area – know thine enemy, etc.

It wasn’t that extreme in Van Dijk’s case. He was being stationed nearby at right-back, so defending has always been at the centre of his attention, though he didn’t exactly constitute the definition of a modern full-back and there was no question of a job swap.

“At 16, I was a slow right-back and not good enough to play centre-back,” he added. “I was never an outstanding player until I played for the U19 (at Willem II) and became captain.

“Then everything went much better. I played sometimes for the U23s, and after that it went pretty fast.”

And fast it did go. He’d break into FC Groningen’s first team and would go on to register 66 first team appearances where he occasionally displayed signs of a promising future.

As well as being a competent defender, shining in terms of his reading of the game and getting the better of attackers, Van Dijk proved to be an attacking threat, having bagged seven goals – either from open play or dead-ball situations.

A different way forward

Usually, the next phase would be moving to one of Dutch football’s big three (Ajax, Feyenoord or PSV Eindhoven), a normal transition for those playing at one of the Eredivisie middling clubs.

Despite Van Dijk being associated with Ajax, the Amsterdammers opted to sign Mike van der Hoorn – now at Swansea City – instead. Hindsight is 20/20, but even back then some felt it was a misstep on their part.

Van Dijk, himself, acknowledged he embarked on an unusual path.

“The road I have been along has not been a typical path for a Dutch player,” he told The Times in 2016.

“Normally the road will be from Groningen to a big club in Holland and then to a big club abroad. For example, Luis Suarez came to Holland and went from Groningen to Ajax to Liverpool.

“For me, the bigger clubs didn’t want to touch me. Ajax, Feyenoord, PSV and AZ were not too sure about me. We needed to make a decision – wait for them or go to Celtic and hope for the best.”

Their loss was, of course, Celtic’s gain and the move ultimately paid off. It was at Celtic Park where Van Dijk substantially improved as a footballer, in every facet of the game, including becoming a feared taker of free-kicks.

Being exposed to Champions League football, and coming face-to-face with Europe’s best, only accelerated his development.

However, coming this far wasn’t good enough for an international appearance, despite earning two call-ups in late 2014. That elusive first cap – against Kazakhstan in October 2015 – came as soon as he moved to England’s top division by joining Southampton.

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By now Van Dijk was climbing the ladder. Some had their doubts, but they were falling by the wayside. It soon became clear, with each passing season, very few rivalled him in the Premier League and Southampton had a fight on their hands.

Unfortunately, for them, he’d outgrown St Mary’s and the next logical step was representing one of Europe’s super clubs. His itch coincided with Liverpool seeking a leader in defence. Both, simply, needed each other.

“They gave everything to get me and I want to give everything for them,” he says. “When you play for this club, you are always welcome as if you were part of the family.

“That’s one of the reasons I definitely wanted to play for this club.”

More than 60 games into his Reds career, we can safely say it’s been a marriage made in heaven. It’s one thing being a colossus in a small pond but Van Dijk has been even better in such a pressure cooker. And not just for his club.

It’s been tough for the Dutch national team following a surprise third-place finish at the 2014 World Cup.

Subsequent failures in qualifying for back-to-back tournaments (Euro 2016 and 2018 World Cup) has put them on the back foot. But the appointment of Ronald Koeman as manager – who immediately handed the captain’s armband to Van Dijk – is starting to pay dividends.

Van Dijk played a pivotal role in Oranje reaching the inaugural UEFA Nations League semi-finals, at the expense of the last two world champions: Germany and France, where they meet high-flying England in Portugal this summer and he could enter that showdown with a personal accolade under his belt.

He’s the favourite to be named as this season’s PFA Player of the Year, following in the footsteps of team-mate Mohamed Salah, with competition likely to come from Manchester City in the guise of Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero.

The lost art of defending

Nevertheless, the case for Van Dijk is strong. There are many factors behind Liverpool’s impressive title push, as they look to end a 29-year wait, even if there’s been a few hiccups along the way (and by no means is he infallible), but no one can deny the impact of the Breda-born juggernaut.

Numbers aside it has, at times, felt like he’s been a one-man wrecking crew – subsequently making others around him better. Their latest, nail-biting, win over Tottenham Hotspur was yet another instance of proof.

After coming from a goal down to level proceedings at Anfield, the visitors could, and should, have gone in front. But Moussa Sissoko, bearing down on goal, with Heung-min Son alongside him, fluffed his lines. Part of the reason was Van Dijk who demonstrated how to defend against two players.

“I see Sissoko and I know he’s right footed and Son normally finishes these chances,” he said afterwards. “So yeah, I decide from that.”

“That shows why Liverpool paid more than £70m for Van Dijk.” Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino told Sky Sports.

Gary Neville, who knows a thing or two about keeping forwards at bay, feels Liverpool’s No.4 is now a reference for those coming up.

“Young defenders, you must watch Virgil van Dijk,” he commented enthusiastically. “He picks the lesser of two evils. Sissoko can have it on his left foot, not letting him pass to Son.

“He can’t win it, you have a choice: which of these do I want to have the shot? It’s Sissoko. Really good defending.”

The debate will rage on. And, frankly, there may never be an overwhelming consensus. But it is no longer the case that Van Dijk doesn’t belong in the conversation. We are seeing, with our very own eyes, a central defender par excellence. Part of his genius has been making the extraordinary ordinary.

From being an incapable right-back to a towering force of nature at the heart of Liverpool’s and Oranje’s defence, it’s been one helluva ride and the scary thing is he’s only starting to fulfil his potential.