The speed with which a club is derided for not spending big on a player they need is surpassed by the swiftness with which they are decried for spending big on a player they need. Forgive the parallelism to an ancient proverb and welcome to modern football coverage.
Jurgen Klopp knew the above to be accurate, envisioned the cannon of criticism being armed around the corner and so, when Liverpool parted with £75 million for Virgil van Dijk from Southampton, the German manager went on the offensive.
“Forget about the price” was his instruction. “We only talk about the player and what he can bring in; the quality, the mentality, the character.”
Overlook the cost, missing any and every chance to reference a world-record fee for a defender? As if. The figure has been rolled out each time the club have conceded since the 26-year-old’s switch from St Mary’s, even when he hasn’t been on the pitch.
If the centre-back has not started – as was the case in the 4-3 victory over Manchester City – the narrative centres around how he could have prevented the goals let in. When he is part of the rearguard, it switches to how the ‘£75m man’ hasn’t actually made much of a difference, with his faults framed.
Van Dijk inked a five-and-a-half-year deal with Liverpool but that doesn’t circumvent the desperation to judge him after just four appearances on account of his overhead.
Klopp has provided the most balanced view on the new signing’s settling-in period, saying it was “as we expected it to be, with a few ups and downs.”
Factoring in the Netherlands international’s long injury-lay off after damaging a ligament in the sole of his foot last January, his transfer battle with Saints, as well as the fact that he has to become accustomed to a fresh style of play plus different personnel, the Reds boss pointed out that “we will all see Virgil van Dijk at his best after the summer.”
Even though he is still finding his feet on Merseyside, what Liverpool’s record recruit adds has been clear. He did not lose an aerial duel against Tottenham, for example, against whom he also produced eight clearances and two interceptions.
At Swansea, none of Van Dijk’s team-mates managed as many touches as him and his 83 passes in the opposition’s half were 95 per cent accurate.
He led the way for clearances amongst both sides and contested 13 aerial duels, winning 77% of them.
Two of Liverpool’s clearest chances to score at the Liberty Stadium involved the Dutchman, yet the main takeaway from that performance for too many was that his defensive header off Sam Clucas’s corner wasn’t strong enough, resulting in Swansea’s winner.
At Anfield, in the 2-2 draw with Spurs, another commanding display in which Harry Kane – the standout striker in world football – was rendered ineffective but for a second successful attempt from the penalty spot, was distilled down to Van Dijk giving away a spot kick at the death.
“No one will talk about my performance in general,” he said after the encounter against Mauricio Pochettino’s side. “We defended very well, had two penalties against us with a lot of question marks around them, but no one is going to talk about that.
“As a team, we did very well against one of the best strikers in Europe. I know because I made such a big step, for a lot of money, everything is going to be analysed.
“No one is going to look at the good things you do. Everybody is going to watch the bad things and that is how it is.
“But I will discuss it with the people who want to make me better, who can make me better, and that is the manager and the players around me. If they think it is right then that is the way forward.”
Those within Melwood have noted that Van Dijk’s stats so far only tell part of the story: his team-mates have flagged how helpful and effective his communication skills have been. The No.4 commands those alongside him, the goalkeeper and the midfield.
There has also been an appreciation over how much the left-sided defender has wanted to soak in over a short period of time to ensure he is up to speed with the all-round expectations at Liverpool.
On Sunday, Van Dijk will return to Southampton prepared for an antagonistic atmosphere. He signed a long-term deal with Saints in May 2016, only to hand in a transfer request and agitate for a move to Anfield the following summer before eventually getting his way last month – but not before his commitment was questioned.
“Maybe they can boo the whole game,” Van Dijk said. “What can you do about it? You can’t do anything. I made the decision, I have enjoyed every bit of it and I am very grateful for everything that Southampton did for me.
“I have moved on, they have moved on.”
Klopp has to settle on his pairing in the heart of defence for the fixture – does he partner Van Dijk with fellow ex-Saint Dejan Lovren again, does he restore Joel Matip to the fold for the Croatian, or use the latter two?
Despite having the smallest sample to work off, the first option seems a smart one. Van Dijk and Lovren started together for the first time last Sunday, and bar the two contentious penalty incidents against Tottenham, were incredibly solid.
Matip has looked less convincing and comfortable next to his Breda-born team-mate, with the duo changing position in-game too often and attacking balls in the other’s zone.
Lovren, however, has not had the easiest of times when returning to St Mary’s, despite facing Southampton more than any other side while at Liverpool.
He will be more accustomed to the constant jeers there than Van Dijk, whose steeliness sits alongside his aerial ability, comfort in defending big spaces and ease in possession – the key attributes that made him Klopp’s ideal centre-back.
“It is a strength of mine to not really bother too much when people have their opinions, especially negative opinions,” said Liverpool’s sole January addition to the first-team.
Given the microscope will not shift from his cost or every mistake, that fortitude will be indispensable for Van Dijk.
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