Virgil van Dijk: Former Groningen team-mates say they knew Liverpool defender was destined to become world-class
Liverpool superstar Virgil van Dijk has had an excellent season and has now been named PFA Player of the Year.
His contributions have helped take the Reds to within touching distance of the Premier League and reach the Champions League semi-finals.
An inclusion in the PFA Team of the Year was a given and now, he has beaten Raheem Sterling to win the individual award, becoming the third defender to do so in Premier League history.
Van Dijk, who moved to Liverpool for £75million in January 2018, has been widely credited with improving their defence, which this campaign has conceded just 20 goals in 35 matches and losing only once, as they contest a dramatic title race with Manchester City.
While Van Dijk has progressed into what many people are considering the world’s best defender over the past couple of years, the 6ft 4in centre-back actually began his career as a goal-getter in the Erdedivisie with Groningen.
“When Virgil first started playing for the first team he did so as a striker,” Finland international and former team-mate Tim Sparv, once on the books at Southampton, told Dream Team.
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“He would come on for the last 15-20 minutes and cause havoc in the opponents’ box. He seemed so confident in his own ability, even though it was his first few games in the team and in a different position to what he was used to. That really impressed me.
“You could see that he handled himself well against more experienced players and didn’t look nervous or out of place, which is always a good sign in a younger player. You got a sense that he was destined for bigger arenas.”
The Holland international made his first team debut for Groningen, coming on for Petter Andersson during a 4–2 victory against ADO Den Haag in May 2011 and the latter says he was well aware of Van Dijk’s potential long before he made his professional debut.
“My first impression of Virgil was when I was injured and training with the second team. I had a good feeling about him from the start. He was very ambitious, humble and easy to talk to,” Andersson remembers.
“From the start he was big and solid on the ball, although he struggled a little bit when it came to his decision making.
“His speed, calmness on the ball and passing ability surprised me. This, together with his obvious physical superiority made him a very complete footballer.”
Van Dijk’s would play 34 times in the league during his final season at Groningen, before completing a move to Scottish giants Celtic for £2.6million in June 2013.
There his reputation would grow even further as he won two league titles and the league cup, eventually catching the eye of Southampton and in 2015, he got his first taste of Premier League football.
Three years later and he would go on to become the world’s most expensive defender and his rise to the top has come as no great surprise to his former colleagues.
“I felt he had the potential to become a really good defender who would go on and play on the biggest stage, but his development has turned out to be even better than I could have imagine,” Sparv said.
“There’s no doubt that he had all the attributes to become a world-class defender, but the truth is that I have played against so many major talents throughout my career and it’s very hard to figure out who will succeed at the very top,” Andersson added.
“I would say that what separates him and most of the best players is their mentality, and it’s hard to see that fully at first. His ability to focus, handle adversity, always learn and develop on and off the field is key.”
“I think that at some point along the way he understood what it would take to become a world-class defender,” Sparv says.
Liverpool travel to the Nou Camp next Wednesday to take on Barcelona and the match is being billed as Lionel Messi vs Van Dijk and the latter will have to use his considerable physical advantages if he is to prevent the great man from running riot.
“During his first period at Groningen he wasn’t perhaps always aware of the amount of effort that you have to invest, on the pitch and in gym, to actually make it,” Sparv added. “I still remember that myself and a few others used to do extra sessions now and again with our physical coach.
“At first Virgil wasn’t a part of that group, but after a while even he joined in and did the extra stuff that is so important for a young player who is trying to make it in professional football.
“He has definitely matured along the way and as a captain myself I can really see how he’s developed his leadership skills during his career.
That was an aspect that didn’t come naturally to him when he first started at Groningen.
“As a young player you are usually more focused on yourself, which is understandable, but it’s great to see how Virgil has developed into a human being that takes more responsibility for others.”
Source: SportsLatest TS