The term ‘a Rolls-Royce of a player’ has become one of the most overused clichés in football.
Arguably the main subject of said phrase in recent years has been Liverpool’s colossal yet classy centre-back Virgil van Dijk – though in truth it’s hard to disagree with the exhausted metaphor.
Although the comparison is meant as a reflection of the defender’s style of play, the similarities don’t end there. Much like the famed car manufacturers – while plenty of people are quick to wax lyrical and gush over the end product – very few appreciate the years of effort, grind and commitment that have gone into producing such a phenomenon.
Many Dutchmen who’ve gone on to become Premier League greats have trodden similar paths on their way to the top, with Eredivisie powerhouses Feyenoord, PSV Eindhoven or Ajax affording them a platform to showcase their talents before moving on to one of England’s elite.
However, Van Dijk was offered no such privilege.
At 17 he would wash dishes for €4-an-hour at a local restaurant after training sessions with Willem II, before being released by the club a year later and told to stop trying to make it as a footballer.
Eager to prove his doubters wrong, Van Dijk joined Groningen in an attempt to get a foothold in the game. However, while a sudden seven-inch growth spurt eventually aided his transformation into a monstrous centre-back, at the time it brought about numerous injury problems as his progress was halted following issues with his knee and groin.
Despite frustrating spells on the sidelines the Dutchman finally settled into the Groningen first-team setup, but the biggest obstacle of his fledgling career was yet to come. At just 20 years of age he nearly died due to a burst appendix and subsequent kidney infection, with only his incredible fitness levels seeing him pull through.
After recovering from his life-threatening ordeal, Van Dijk would be handed one final snub from Holland’s elite, as Ajax’s director of football Marc Overmars opted to sign Mike van der Hoorn instead of the Groningen youngster, leaving him at a crossroads in his career.
“For me, the bigger clubs didn’t want to touch me,” Van Dijk told the Times in 2016. “Ajax, Feyenoord, PSV and AZ were not too sure about me. We needed to make a decision – wait for them or go to Celtic and hope for the best.”
While the ‘Dutch footballer blueprint’ may have been begging for the youngster to be patient and wait for his chance, Van Dijk – confident in his own ability – headed to Scottish giants Celtic, and just seven years on his decision has been vindicated as he proudly sits at the apex of the footballing world.
Many scoffed at the eye-watering £75m Liverpool paid Southampton for the services of the Netherlands international, yet less than three years into his Reds career the figure already represents a bargain – in footballing terms at least.
While impressive individual stats like having not been dribbled past since 1952 are of course welcome, the influence the former Celtic man has had on the team and on those around him is undoubtedly the highlight of his time on Merseyside.
Since Van Dijk made his debut in January 2018, the Reds have made 91 Premier League outings and conceded just 65 goals. Compare that figure to the 110 goals Liverpool conceded in the 91 matches prior to him signing for the club, and suddenly the enormity of the centre-back’s impact on Klopp’s side becomes clear.
The performances of those around him have improved considerably since his arrival at Anfield, with centre-back partners Joël Matip and Joe Gomez playing the best football of their careers – and the latter becoming a regular in the England setup.
Van Dijk’s sensational form has unquestionably been a huge facet of the club’s recent trophy haul, with a Champions League and Premier League winner’s medal taking pride of place on the 29-year-old’s mantelpiece (probably).
While his physical prowess and footballing ability are both regularly lauded, one aspect of his game which often goes unrecognised is his ability to read the game. Rarely does he find himself making desperate last ditch tackles or frantically sprinting back towards his own goal, such is his defensive nous and positional awareness.
Arguably one of the first instances of Van Dijk putting a foot out of place in Liverpool’s Premier League winning campaign was during the club’s coronation party, as he produced some suspect dad dancing to Robin S’ You’ve Got To Show Me Love – though up until the title was sealed the big man was as good as flawless.
No player who makes it to the upper echelons of world football has an easy ride; the journey requires dedication, commitment, talent and above all else an irrepressible work ethic.
Van Dijk’s road to the top was strewn with obstacles and challenges, all of which have aided him in becoming the confident, unflappable character we see today. He may have had to take the long way round, but after years of struggle, the Dutchman can proudly consider himself the greatest central defender on the planet.