“How have we managed to sign this guy?” There is something a little vague and apocryphal about the oft-quoted reaction of one unnamed Celtic player to seeing Virgil van Dijk in training on his first day at the club.
Van Dijk was 22 at the time and a late bloomer, rejected as a teenager by Willem II (“too many limitations”), and more recently by Ajax, PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord, with two decent seasons at Groningen to recommend him.
Celtic paid £1.74m up front for Van Dijk. And exactly how this came to pass remains an excellent question, one that speaks to Van Dijk’s own slow-burn rise from the fringes of Dutch football; through the meandering promise of his early years (as the journalist Simon Kuper put it: “a first-rate player with a second-rate career”); to that period between 2018-2020 when he stood apart in his own clear, clean space as the best pure defender in world football.
Sunday’s trip to Stamford Bridge is an anniversary game for Liverpool and Van Dijk. It is almost exactly four years since he made his debut against Everton at Anfield, four years since the club paid what was then a world-record transfer fee for a defender.
At the time Van Dijk had never played in the Champions League knockout stages and had made only 16 appearances for his country. This was a signing based on that same sense of double-take, the rare combination of poise, physical ease, leadership vibes and a feeling that this was a footballer yet to reach out into the outer limits of his own grand talent.
As Van Dijk prepares for what will be – or would have been, or might still be – a mouthwatering personal battle with Romelu Lukaku, a centre-forward yet to score in six games against him, another very distinct quality stands out. Van Dijk is that genuinely rare thing: the magic-bullet player, the jigsaw-piece signing, a moment of one-man team-completion.
Football really doesn’t work like this very often. The variables, 11 to the power of 11, are too vast. The parts are constantly shifting. There is, every time you walk out, an opposition to contend with. One perfect part to complete the perfect team: it just doesn’t happen.
At which point, enter Lukaku, who was also signed, or so it seemed, as the final stroke in some evolving masterplan. Here was a European champion team with one gapingly obvious, forehead- slapping, football-for-dummies hole in its frontline. Just add one cutting-edge centre-forward. Then press go and stand back.
How’s that working out, anyway? It is extraordinary to think that in early September Lukaku could be seen fist pumping and badge-slapping back at the Matthew Harding end as the Chelsea fans sang his name, fresh from terrorising the Aston Villa defence.
Fast-forward three months and Lukaku has just given a startlingly tin-eared and, as far as Chelsea’s fans are concerned, bizarrely cold interview to Sky Sports Italy: talking in awed tones of his dream of signing for various other clubs, of his undying love for his previous employers, and threatening to leave because the system isn’t to his liking.
There is no doubt that footballers think these things all the time, that they talk like this in private. Football isn’t a cobble-close community fairytale. Players do not ruffle the hair of small boys and girls as they catch the bus to the ground and feel deep in their souls the ties that bind them to these distant global super-clubs
But talking like this in earshot of the people who pay to watch, who just want to dream a little, to believe against all logic that this feeling is mutual, is brutal stuff. And however this situation ends up resolving itself, Van Dijk to Liverpool looks a little more stark, even more of an outlier.
It is worth remembering that Van Dijk turned up at Anfield looking a little underdone, three weeks since his last game for Southampton. He scored against Everton in that debut game, but his next two were defeats to Swansea and West Brom, with Van Dijk a little fogged and rusty, whirling around at times like a man being menaced by a cloud of midges.
Steadily something settled. By the end of January there was already a sense of some precision-cut shape being eased into its groove. As winter dissolved into spring Liverpool set off on that freewheeling run of slightly wild attacking football that took them all the way to the Champions League final, but which also featured 11 clean sheets.
The next two and a half years would bring a Champions League triumph, a Club World Cup gong, a league title, and in Van Dijk’s case, a rare sense of sustained, frictionless excellence; a period bookended by Jordan Pickford’s horrendous assault on his ankle in October last year and the nine-month hiatus that followed.
Two things stand out now about the golden age of Virgil. First, that Liverpool team was prepped and ready, the system grooved, primed and easily understood. Jürgen Klopp’s centre-backs are asked to defend one on one, to cover the full-backs, to curate that risky high line.
Van Dijk was ready for this, a pure central defender in the classic mould, with a rare ability to take defensive soundings, to obsess over details of covering and blocking and marking. Van Dijk has always had a curiosity about systems, a thirst for learning that his earliest coaches noticed. There is a theory he benefited in the long term from the lack of high-end academy training in those slow-burn years, from the need to work the game out for himself.
It is a quality he will require once again as he enters another phase in his career. It is still a little startling to witness the moments of everyday slackness that have crept into Van Dijk’s game as Liverpool have struggled to regain their own champion pitch, as the midfield in front of him has shifted, as Van Dijk has searched to regain his explosive agility.
This is perhaps a little unfair. The balance in any team is impossibly delicate. The combination of forces that led to the magic bullet years has been replaced by another haystack of variables. And the default option in football is always uncertainty.
Scroll down the list of all-time Premier League signings, through Grealish-Lukaku-Pogba-Maguire-Sancho-Pépé-Arrizabalaga-Havertz, and only one player in the £70m-plus bracket – the Dutchman at No 6 – has managed to escape that sense of make do and mend. If the trip to Chelsea, the duel manqué with Lukaku, tells us anything it is that the golden age of Virgil really was a startlingly rare exception.