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It has become the most thrilling sight in modern football, one that makes even idle observers look up from their phones and fix their attentions on the television screen, gripped by a sense of foreboding akin to hearing the first strains of the theme music from Jaws: Kylian Mbappe bearing down on goal, with only one defender barring his path.
There were 13 minutes remaining in the Netherlands’ UEFA Nations League game against France in September when Virgil van Dijk found himself thrust into the role of the solitary defender. Paul Pogba’s pass from deep put Mbappe one-on-one with Van Dijk, and as the Paris Saint-Germain forward sped across the halfway line, the Stade de France roared like an expectant Colosseum.
As Van Dijk moved across toward him, Mbappe’s pace slowed and his stride shortened. He took three quick touches and then looked to burst past Van Dijk on the outside of the Dutchman, in much the same way that he had eased past Marcos Rojo before winning the penalty that set France en route to victory over Argentina at the FIFA World Cup.
But Van Dijk, who had got himself side-on to Mbappe, anticipated his opponent’s intentions. As Mbappe accelerated, so did Van Dijk. He placed a sly hand on the teenager’s left arm to put him off balance, and when France’s No. 10 let fly with a right-foot shot, Van Dijk stretched out his long right leg to produce an impeccably timed block.
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The Netherlands ended up losing the game 2-1 and Van Dijk was partly at fault for Olivier Giroud’s winning goal, but his challenge on Mbappe demonstrated his remarkable qualities. He has been credited with single-handedly sorting out Liverpool‘s defensive problems under Jurgen Klopp, and Sky Sports pundit and Liverpool legend Jamie Carragher has labelled him “the best centre-back in the Premier League.”
Spared by Riyad Mahrez’s ballooned penalty after conceding a late spot-kick in Liverpool’s 0-0 draw against Manchester City last weekend, Van Dijk is set to captain his country against Germany in the Nations League on Saturday, when his credentials as one of the world’s leading central defenders will once again be put to the test.
At 27 and with only 21 caps to his name, he is blossoming late for a modern international centre-back. France’s Raphael Varane, two years Van Dijk’s junior, has already won 51 caps. At Van Dijk’s age, Sergio Ramos had already made over a century of international appearances, while Gerard Pique and Diego Godin were both around the 60-cap mark.
It is a similar story in the Champions League. Ramos has played Champions League football every season since he was 19, Pique since he was 20 and Varane since he was 18. Before Van Dijk joined Liverpool from Southampton midway through last season, the six group games he played for Celtic in the 2013-14 campaign represented the full extent of his experience in the competition outside the qualification stages.
So what’s taken him so long?
Pieter Huistra first encountered Van Dijk while coaching Ajax‘s reserves in 2009. Van Dijk, then aged 18, was on the books at Willem II, and while his position would change from match to match, his ability stood out already.
“He sometimes played in the reserve team, sometimes in the under-19s,” Huistra told Bleacher Report.
“Sometimes he was a defender, sometimes he played as a striker. Even then he had a presence about him; his height, his way of playing. We could see that he was not fully grown. He was still a little bit gangly, but he caught the eye.”
Huistra was appointed head coach of Groningen the following year and was intrigued to find himself working with Van Dijk, who had left Willem II after growing frustrated at his lack of first-team opportunities under head coach Fons Groenendijk.
The move was a challenge for Van Dijk on multiple fronts. Willem II are based in the southern Dutch city of Tilburg, which is a 35-minute drive from the Haagse Beemden district in Breda where Van Dijk grew up, whereas Groningen was 160 miles to the north.
Van Dijk was at times a reluctant trainer, and Huistra worked hard to improve his “professional discipline.” Initially restricted to outings for Groningen’s reserve team, he had to wait until May 2011 to make his first-team debut.
Van Dijk established himself in the first team the following season, but although he was monitored by Ajax and the Netherlands’ other big clubs, none of them made a move. Huistra says there were concerns that he was too “laid back,” too reliant on his physical attributes to get himself out of trouble. National coach Ronald Koeman, who worked with Van Dijk at Southampton, has criticised him for those very shortcomings this week.
Huistra, however, feels the concerns of the country’s leading teams were misplaced and likens Van Dijk’s development path to that of former Manchester United defender Jaap Stam. Another big, quick Dutch centre-back, Stam had to navigate the footballing backwaters of FC Zwolle, SC Cambuur and, like Van Dijk, Willem II before getting a chance with PSV Eindhoven.
“In Holland, when you’re not in the academy of Ajax or PSV or Feyenoord, scouts tend to be sceptical. ‘Why is he in the academy of Willem II? There’s probably something wrong.’ And it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” explains Huistra, who is currently the assistant coach at Uzbek club Pakhtakor Tashkent.
“You can compare Virgil to Jaap Stam in a certain way. Like Virgil, he made his way to the top slowly.”
Europe’s big clubs might have been umming and ahhing about whether Van Dijk was worth a punt, but Scottish giants Celtic had no doubts about his potential.
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“Now and then you come across players that make you take extra notice, and in Virgil’s case I could see that he had all the potential tools to have a good career,” says Neil McGuinness, a former Celtic scout who began tracking Van Dijk in 2011.
McGuinness first went to watch Van Dijk when Groningen travelled to meet Vitesse Arnhem in February 2013 and was struck by the “composure and calmness” with which he handled Wilfried Bony, who would finish the season as the Eredivisie’s leading scorer with 31 goals.
“He just wasn’t fazed, and when you’re that young and playing against a guy like Bony, who was in great form at that time, it shows a strong sign of character,” McGuinness recalls.
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Johan Mjallby, assistant to then-Celtic manager Neil Lennon, was dispatched to watch Groningen’s final game of the regular season at home to newly crowned champions Ajax three months later, and he too returned home with a glowing report.
“I thought he would strengthen us all over, not only with his leadership, but because he was a big, strong boy, he was quick for his size and he was a hell of a footballer,” Mjallby tells Bleacher Report. “For me it was a no-brainer.”
Mjallby, an uncompromising centre-back during his own playing days, scoffs at the suggestion that he might have played a significant role in Van Dijk’s footballing development following the Dutchman’s arrival at Celtic Park in June 2013. “He didn’t really need any advice from me,” he says.
Mjallby is baffled as to why, after leaving Celtic in 2015, Van Dijk was able to spend two-and-a-half seasons at Southampton before finally being snapped up by one of Europe’s leading clubs, but he believes the extended acclimatisation process has served him well.
“I don’t really know why it took him a few years at Southampton before he really shone through, but I think it was clever of him to stay at least two years at Celtic and then stay at Southampton for a bit,” says the former Sweden international.
“It took him some time, but maybe that was because he was getting used to the speed of the game down there and playing against world-class players week in, week out.”
In Huistra’s eyes, Van Dijk’s long quest for recognition was the making of him.
“Maybe it was even better that he had to fight to show everybody that he was good enough to play at the highest level,” he says. “He proved them all wrong.”
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Carragher believes that Van Dijk could one day be spoken about in the same breath as Anfield legends such as Alan Hansen, and Mjallby thinks that if he can win some major silverware with Liverpool or the Netherlands, he could yet go down as an all-time great.
“If he wins trophies, you have to start talking about him like that,” he says. “He’s got every chance.”