Virgil van Dijk was asked in the build up to Thursday’s UEFA Nations League semi-final clash with England whether he was sober. An unusual question to ask a professional footballer in 2019, but it had only been a few days since Liverpool beat Tottenham in the Champions League final.
“Yes I am completely sober,” he replied while laughing. Even reaffirming that any alcohol he may have consumed had completely left his system. Unlike the seven England players that were involved in the Champions League final, Van Dijk was thrust straight into the starting XI in the Netherlands’ 3-1 win over the Three Lions.
England midfielder Jordan Henderson has admitted he was not in the right shape mentally or physically heading into Thursday’s match following the celebrations of Liverpool’s European triumph. For Van Dijk, there were no signs of a Champions League hangover and he was fully focused on winning a second major trophy in the space of a week.
He was composure personified. While the other centre-backs on display showed cracks in their armoury, the Liverpool defender was always on hand at the right time to extinguish any danger. Raheem Sterling looked to have escaped Van Dijk’s clutches at one point only for the Dutchman to snap back and win the ball back when the odds seemed against him.
The 27-year-old did something similar in the Champions League final to thwart Heung-min Son when the Tottenham forward appeared through on goal, only for Van Dijk to divert danger.
Now Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal stand in the way of the Netherlands’ first major piece of silverware since 1988. The prospect of Van Dijk coming head-to-head with Ronaldo is a mouth-watering one, even if it’s not the first time it’s happened. Van Dijk came out on top in the Netherlands’ 3-0 win over Portugal in March 2018, even scoring, before Ronaldo had the last laugh in the Champions League final a few months later.
Van Dijk, however, is in the form of his life and winning the Champions League and inaugural UEFA Nations League would only strengthen the Dutchman’s claim to be crowned the best player in the world later this year. Stifling Ronaldo at the same time would also be a huge statement from Van Dijk.
The Juventus striker marked his first appearance in the competition with a devastating hat-trick in Portugal’s 3-1 win over Switzerland 24 hours before the Netherlands beat England. After another gruelling campaign, Ronaldo does not appear to be easing himself into his summer holidays, instead focused on winning his second international tournament in three years.
If there is any centre-back in the world that can spoil Ronaldo’s party, then it’s Van Dijk. He would be a worthy recipient of the award, though the Liverpool star insists Lionel Messi is the best on the planet and will be until he retires.
Messi finished the 2018/19 campaign as the highest WhoScored rated player in Europe’s top five leagues (8.48). The 31-year-old scored more goals than any other player (36) and also registered 13 assists. Messi won the WhoScored Man of the Match award in exactly half of his 34 league appearances, at least three more than any other player on the continent.
Statistically speaking, you cannot argue against Messi being the best. It was farcical that the Argentine was judged only the fifth best player in the world last year, though it would not be completely harsh if Van Dijk piped him to the award this time around, should the Netherlands triumph on Sunday.
Van Dijk has developed into an elite centre-back since joining Liverpool 18 months ago in a world record deal for a defender and he has helped transform Liverpool into one of Europe’s best teams. Liverpool remarkably finished second in the Premier League last season with 97 points, which would have been enough to win the title in all but the last two campaigns.
Since making his debut for Liverpool, Van Dijk has kept a clean sheet in more than half of his Premier League appearances (27/52) – more than any other defender in that time. Van Dijk remarkably went through last season without a single opposition player dribbling past him.
What is so impressive about Van Dijk is that his positioning and awareness is so good despite being so athletic. Fast defenders had a tendenacy to suffer from lapses in concentration with the knowledge they have the speed to bail themselves out of danger when required. Kyle Walker falls firmly into that category.
However, Van Dijk is rarely caught out of position. Even on the odd occasion where an opponent appears to have the upper hand over Van Dijk, the Dutchman still manages to shut them down and rectify the problem.
It’s difficult to find a fault in Van Dijk’s game. His positioning is spot on; he is extremely mobile and strong in the air. In fact, of players that attempted at least 200 aerial duels in Europe’s top five leagues last season, only Lyon’s Marcelo (78.1%) had a better success rate than Van Dijk (74.2%). The Liverpool defender is good with the ball at his feet, illustrated by the fact he completed 89.7% of his passes in the Premier League last term, and also a threat in the opposition penalty box. Van Dijkscored six goals across and registered four assists across league and European competition last season.
It has been 12 years since a defender was named the best player in the world and Van Dijk will be well placed to end that run if he can help Netherlands win the UEFA Nations League final on Sunday.