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Virgil van Dijk must regain his £75m form

Virgil van Dijk must regain his form to justify the £75m Liverpool FC have spent
The defender has struggled since he returned to action following a serious ankle problem

By Chris Beesley
15:02, 28 DEC 2017

Liverpool ’s record signing Virgil van Dijk needs to rediscover his top form if he’s to justify the £75m fee the Reds have spent to bring him to Anfield .

That’s the verdict of the football writer who has witnessed his Premier League journey to date, Adam Leitch, the chief sports writer at the Southern Daily Echo.

Leitch claims the Dutch international made centre-half play look “embarrassingly easy” before his injury layoff at St Mary’s but has not hit the same heights since returning to action after the serious ankle problem that saw him sit out the second half of last season.

Virgil van Dijk 'cannot wait to pull on famous red shirt' after Liverpool FC move
He told the Liverpool Echo: “I think the deal is the best outcome for all parties concerned. From Virgil’s point of view he wanted to go from the end of last season and that clearly hasn’t changed. Despite Saints’ stance over the summer that they weren’t going to sell him, he still wanted to leave, that was obvious.

“There have been some questions raised over his level of commitment since he got back into the team.

“Virgil has played well in fairness to him - most of the time not all of the time - but it’s still far, far off the level from before he was injured in January.

“Inevitably there are questions as to whether that’s a commitment issue, that he’s not fully involved at the club, or it’s been a physical issue that he’s just not come back as good a player from before he went away or it’s taken him more time to find his feet and fitness.”

Leitch added: “It’s clear that Saints need strengthening in other areas and the money will come in handy in January.

“It’s been a massive distraction throughout the first few months under Mauricio Pellegrino when things haven’t been that great anyway. So getting that fee is a good deal for Saints.

“Liverpool have obviously wanted him for a long time so it can only be a good thing for them that they’ve eventually got him.

“I think the timing is right for everybody to have got it done quickly and move on.”

Liverpool looked set to win the race for van Dijk’s signature over the summer but backed off after Southampton threatened to report them to the FA over an approach for the player.

Although the Reds issued a public apology at the time, van Dijk was subsequently hand in a transfer request but stayed put.

However, after returning from his spell on the sidelines, his displays so far in 2017/18 have not matched the levels of the previous campaign.

Given that Liverpool have made van Dijk the world’s most expensive defender, Leitch warns that there are still question marks over whether the 26-year-old is the same player as he was pre-injury.

He said: “The only thing I would caution from Liverpool’s point of view is that had this happened a year ago - pre-injury - then you would have said ‘wow, what a player Liverpool are getting.’

“Now, there has to be, even if it’s a small element of doubt, an element of doubt, as to what level he is out now.

“It’s been almost a calendar year since he’s been that player.

“Does he still have that in his locker or not? You’d assume so because class is permanent and now he’s going to be mentally focused and striving to be successful.

“He’s where he wants to be, where he wants to play his football and he clearly wants to play for Jurgen Klopp as well and that was obviously the deciding factor in all this so you would fancy that he would get back to that level but you can’t say for sure. Form is not a tap that you can just turn on and off.”

Leitch added: “It might be that he was just shaking off a bit of rust with Saints in recent months getting back to match sharpness and he’ll just click straight into the Liverpool team but you can’t say with confidence that it’s a guarantee.

“I don’t want to be unfair to him. Other than one or two games the performances haven’t been terrible. He’s still been one of the better defenders in the Premier League as he’s such a quality player.

“However last season there were times when he was virtually a one-man team for Southampton. That was the level he was at. He was absolutely phenomenal.”

A class act who makes centre-half play look ‘embarrassingly easy’

So just what makes van Dijk such a special player when he is on form?

Leitch believes that a combination of strength, assuredness and football intelligence see him stand out from his peers.

He said: “When he was at the peak of his powers he probably had the best distribution in the Saints squad, which for a centre-half is quite something.

“Physically he’s very powerful. He’s a threat in both boxes and very confident spraying the ball around and carrying the ball out of defence himself.

“He can start attacks as he’s happy to move forward into space in front of him.

“For me you can always tell a top quality centre-half by their reading of the game. In that respect he’s absolute class, it was almost effortless.

“He rarely got into situations where he had to make those desperate last-ditch tackles because he was so ahead of most players on the pitch and the strikers he was marking. It was embarrassingly easy for him at times.”

Confident but chilled out character will see Anfield as his natural stage.

While it remains to be seen if van Dijk is physically capable of getting back to his very best, Leitch does not believe Klopp will suffer from any problems with the player’s attitude and reckons the issues that arose on the south coast as he agitated for a move did not come naturally with his temperament.

He said: “Virgil is very laid back. He’s very assured and confident in his own abilities without being particularly cocky – he’s not that type of person.

“He’s a calm, relaxed kind of guy, he’s not a huge tub-thumping character, that’s not really his style, he’s more chilled out.

“I suspect having gone through what has happened and having done what he felt he had to do in the summer seems completely out of character for him as a person so I imagine it’s been a very tough time for him personally but in the end he’s got what he wanted out of it all.

“I don’t think any of it will faze him too much, going to Liverpool and playing at that amazing stadium.

“His confidence in his own ability will make him feel that’s where he belongs I think, playing at Champions League level.”

Die-hard Saints will find it hard to swallow losing yet another star to Reds

The former Celtic man will become the sixth Southampton player to join Liverpool in the past three-and-a-half years with the Reds having shelled out £170.5m in fees following moves for Rickie Lambert (£4m); Adam Lallana (£25m); Dejan Lovren (£20m); Nathaniel Clyne (£12.5m) and Sadio Mane (£34m).

Another departure down the well-trodden path will not prove popular among many within the St Mary’s faithful but Leitch has called upon the supporters to take the rough with the smooth.

He said: “Given all that happened in the summer and Southampton’s previous record of selling players to Liverpool, I don’t think the move is going to go down all that well with Saints fans.

“But the mood had got to the point where people just wanted him to go.

“Over the summer, fans were keen that the team didn’t sell, and particularly to Liverpool considering the number of players that had taken that route in the past and the way it played out.

“Some supporters will see it as Saints just giving in given Liverpool’s behaviour over the summer and van Dijk’s reaction however more pragmatic people will understand that it had got to the point where something had to happen from Saints point of view.

“The team couldn’t carry on with these questions hanging over van Dijk. Saints are struggling this season and could be sucked into a relegation dogfight and they don’t need another distraction.

“They need a squad that is 100% focused and players who want to be there and see their future as being there in order to get out of trouble.”

Leitch added: “If somebody is prepared to pay £75m - which I consider absolute top dollar for van Dijk - then if it has to be Liverpool again then so be it. You’ve just got to accept that.

“I would say that Liverpool have had to pay a premium to get the deal done for them rather than him going somewhere else after what happened over the summer.

“I know Saints don’t like that but look at the amount of money that Liverpool have paid in recent years for Southampton players. They’ve got one or two who have proved to be bargains while others have looked like absolute daylight robberies from Saints point of view. It’s got to be seen in that context.

“I think that’s how people have got to look at it as hard as it might be for some.”

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