30th November 2016. By Ryan Baldi.
Since joining Southampton from Celtic in the summer of 2015, Dutch defender Virgil van Dijk's reputation has steadily grown to the point where he is now widely regarded as one of the finest centre-backs in the Premier League.
The 25-year-old Netherlands international is a reported transfer target for Manchester United, Liverpool and Everton, with a predicted price tag of as much as £40 million.
Former England striker and Southampton legend Matt Le Tissier is well aware of van Dijk's value at St. Mary's. "Virgil van Dijk is one of the best central defenders in the Premier League," he told Sky Sports. "He's an absolute giant for us. He just makes the game look so easy."
While Le Tissier's punditry colleague Jamie Redknapp is also a fan. "He's got it all," the former Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur midfielder said. "He's obviously very big, he's good on the ball and he's got pace. He's the modern-day centre-back who can come forward with the ball. He could play for any team in the future -- Barcelona, Real Madrid -- he's that good."
Van Dijk, born in Breda, the Netherlands, to Dutch and Surinamese parents, started his footballing journey in the youth team of Willem II, but left the Tricolores while still a teenager to join Groningen.
At Groningen, the young defender was regarded as a prospect of some note, and earned international recognition by making appearances for the Dutch under-19 and -21 teams during his time at the Euroborg Stadium.
However, van Dijk's development into a genuine top-class professional was not always a certainty. Former Rangers and Netherlands winger Pieter Huistra was in charge of Groningen between 2010 and 2012, and was the man to give the Southampton star his senior debut five years ago.
Speaking to Sky Sports recently, Huistra admitted that, though van Dijk's enormous potential was never in doubt, there were question marks over his application and work ethic: "You have to give your best every day. He was too easy. Sometimes he'd train hard, other times he'd train at 50 per cent or 60 per cent. I tried to teach him that this was the biggest thing he had to improve."
Though he went on to become a stellar central defender, van Dijk made his name as a forward in the Groningen team. In his April 2011 debut against ADO Den Haag, he came on as a 72nd minute substitute and played up front in a 4-2 win.
Having made his first-team bow towards the end of the previous campaign, the 2011-12 season saw van Dijk become a much more regular feature of the Groningen line-up, restored to a defensive role, making 23 appearances and bagging his first career goal in a 6-0 thrashing of Feyenoord, one of the traditional powerhouses of Dutch football.
With a total of 37 appearances and another goal against Feyenoord, this time in a 2-1 defeat -- the following season, van Dijk had become a bona fide star for the Eredivisie side, and his performances were not going unnoticed.
Scottish champions Celtic were quickest to pounce, backing their interest in the player with a £2.6 million bid; van Dijk made the switch to Glasgow on 21 June 2013.
Though his first appearance for the Bhoys was as a late substitute against Aberdeen at Pittodrie, van Dijk was a starter in the very next game a 2-2 draw with Inverness Caledonian Thistle and was a fixture of the Celtic XI from thereon.
The standard of football in the Scottish Premiership is often derided, with many observers feeling that the general quality of the division has steadily eroded since its '90s heyday. But the way in which van Dijk elevated himself above all competition showed that he had the requisite level of ability to thrive in a much more competitive and technical league.
A slaloming fifth-minute solo goal away to St. Johnstone on Boxing Day 2013 was evidence of his supreme class. Sauntering forward as though his opponents were static traffic cones, the 6ft 4ins defender strolled through the Saints' defence before confidently beating goalkeeper Alan Mannus; his flawless performance at the other end of the pitch ensured that his early goal was enough to secure three points for the Hoops.
In just over two years with Celtic, van Dijk made 115 appearances, scored an impressive 15 goals, and won two league titles and the 2014-15 Scottish League Cup.
Despite the misgivings over the level of opposition he faced in Scotland, the towering defender's pedigree was in little doubt. So confident were Southampton that van Dijk was more than good enough to succeed south of the border, that they forked out £13 million to sign him on 1 September 2015.
And, just as he had been in the Netherlands and Scotland, van Dijk was an instant hit with his new club, helping the Saints keep a clean sheet at the Hawthorns in a 0-0 draw with West Bromwich Albion on his debut and registering his first goal two weeks later in a 3-1 win over Swansea City.
A first full international cap soon followed, with Danny Blind selecting the former Groningen man to play in the Oranje's 2-1 Euro 2016 qualifier against Kazakhstan. He has since gone on to form the bedrock of the Netherlands' backline, earning 12 caps in just over a year.
At the end of his maiden Premier League campaign, van Dijk was named Southampton's player of the year, and was rewarded with a new, improved six-year contract on 7 May 2016, as the Saints attempted to ward off any potential suitors for their star defender in the upcoming transfer window.
But with January approaching, rumours of a mega-money move away from the South Coast club are beginning to circulate. Liverpool have a track record of plundering Southampton's best talent, while Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho is thought to be a fan and former Saints boss Ronald Koeman is keen to link up with the defender again at Everton.
With his combination of pace, physicality, anticipation, aerial prowess and control, van Dijk is the total package. In an era when defenders are expected to be adept at starting attacking moves with crisp forward passes, the Dutchman's ability on the ball has made him one of the most valuable centre-backs in Europe.
Whether Southampton are able to hang onto him beyond the January window remains to be seen, but, one way or another, van Dijk is headed for the very top of the game.
Virgil van Dijk One of the Finest Centre-Backs in the Premier League
30th November 2016. By Ryan Baldi.