When making the transition south of the border from the SPFL to the Premier League questions will naturally be asked of a player’s credentials; something Virgil van Dijk recognised himself: “The standard is much quicker than in Scotland. The ball is like a pinball machine. You have to concentrate. It took me some time to get used to it but I’m doing all right now.”
However, those who had followed Van Dijk during his time with the Scottish steamroller, Celtic, will know that these questions were gratuitous. The 24-year-old has taken to Premier League life with aplomb and Southampton and the Oranje are the beneficiaries writes Alex Blinston.
While Van Dijk may have flattered to deceive in the recent loss to Czech Republic, it was – as has been well documented – a scandalous showing from the whole Dutch side, so it would be foolish to evaluate Van Dijk’s second cap with a fine-tooth comb.
The departure of Toby Alderweireld from St Mary’s gave Ronald Koeman the task of finding a new partner to club captain Jose Fonte, with the Dutchman eventually opting for his compatriot. The £11.5 million that it took for Celtic to part with Van Dijk represented a sizeable investment – it made him the most The Saints most expensive defender in their history – but so far Koeman’s men are reaping great rewards from their investment.
Last term Southampton conceded just 33 goals – a tally only bettered by eventual champions Chelsea – and back-to-back clean sheets against Bournemouth and Sunderland are showing signs of real defensive steel, something which Van Dijk has been an integral part of.
Hitherto, only six players average more clearances in the Premier League than the 24-year-old (7.9) and Van Dijk making 93% of the tackles he attempts. While you’d expect someone of a 6ft 4in frame to be domineering in the air, Van Dijk posts exceptional aerial duel figures by any measure. Only Sebastian Bassong has won more aerial battles (47) than Van Dijk (46) in the Premier League this term, but to give this context it has taken him 360 minutes more to do so. Furthermore, the Dutchman averages a successful aerial battle every 15.1 minutes of action, a tally only Calum Chambers can boast to better.
While Van Dijk is evidently stellar in his defensive duties, his ability in possession certainly can’t be overlooked. The fact that the centre-back pairing of Fonte and Van Dijk lead Southampton in average passes per game – first and second respectively – epitomises Ronald Koeman’s philosophy of playing out from the back. Southampton’s No.17 averages 47.9 passes per game and does so at an impressive 84.6% pass success rate, with van Dijk still yet to be dispossessed in the Premier League.
None of the centre-back trio that starred at the 2014 World cup – Stefan de Vrij (injury), Ron Vlaar and Bruno Martins Indi – were called up to Danny Blind’s most recent squad; now is the time for Van Dijk. With the Dutch now at rock bottom, expectations have been reset and it could – underline the word could – prove to be a fertile environment for Van Dijk and the fellow inexperienced members of the side. In Van Dijk, Terrence Kongolo, Joel Veltman and Jairo Riedewald, Blind has an abundance of young blood at the heart of defence and although it may not get the pulse racing, building solid defensive foundations to build on could prove to be the best option.
Arguments could certainly be made that Virgil van Dijk has been the standout defender in the Premier League this term – his Whoscored.com average rating (7.80) which ranks top of the pile of all defenders would certainly provide evidence to this. While the Southampton summer exodus has become a formality in recent times, van Dijk is in the perfect place to flourish, particularly with Koeman at the helm. Football is beautifully unpredictable and dynamics can easily change, but it is easy to envisage Virgil van Dijk and Ronald Koeman eventually teaming up with Het Wilhelmus ringing out.
*Stats courtesy of Opta Sports