The fee was huge. A club record; a world record for a defender. The kind of transfer fee that inevitably dominates headlines and stands as a benchmark against which all subsequent transfers are judged, until another comes along and blows it out of the water. It was all anyone could talk about. Until now.
Now that Virgil van Dijk has made his Liverpool debut, following his £75million switch from Southampton, the fee is no longer the focus. Well, that’s not entirely true: people will still talk about the money, but the context has shifted. Every player has a price, every footballer’s worth is dictated by several market forces and value is entirely subjective. But a stellar debut capped by the winning goal in a cup tie against a bitter cross-city rival? You can’t put a price on that.
Liverpool were without injured duo Mohamed Salah and Philippe Coutinho for the visit of Everton in the FA Cup third round on Friday night, and their attack was blunted for the loss of their two star performers of the season so far.
Jürgen Klopp’s men struggled to break down the Toffees’ low block without the Egyptian’s speed and direct dribbling, and they missed Coutinho’s scheming and inventiveness in behind the frontline. Liverpool mustered just four shots on target, one of which from the penalty spot when James Milner put them ahead in the first half.
These issues are temporary, of course, or at least partly: Salah will be back, but the same cannot be said of Barcelona transfer target Coutinho with any certainty.
And so, in the end, it was left to van Dijk to do the business at both ends, keeping Everton largely at bay with an assured performance alongside Joël Matip, and heading an 84th-minute winner after Gylfi Sigurðsson had equalised for Sam Allardyce’s side.
The goal was an unexpected bonus, but van Dijk has been signed, at such great expense, for what he adds at the other end, and the Merseyside derby was a showcase of that.
It must be said that this was not an especially adventurous Everton side, with Allardyce admitting pre-game that his team would not be set up in an open and expansive manner, feeling that would only play into Liverpool’s hands.
But the Toffees weren’t without bite. Dominic Calvert-Lewin, their lone striker, offered pace and a willing runner, while Yannick Bolasie asked questions down the right flank with his skill and crossing ability. Although van Dijk was not overly stretched, he was certainly not underemployed, either.
The graceful and athletic 6ft 4ins defender won five aerial duels – more than any other Liverpool player – made three clearances, two interceptions and one tackle.
Van Dijk’s work in the defensive third is, and was here, as much about what he does with the ball as without it, though. Evident from his time at Southampton, the Dutchman is a gifted passer capable of bringing the ball out from the back and instigating attacking moves. He’s a safe pair of hands in possession and confident in his all-round footballing ability.
Against Everton, van Dijk attempted more passes (62) than any other player on the pitch, maintaining a completion rate of 75.8 per cent, pinging the most accurate long balls (four) of anyone in red.
In truth, he should have scored earlier than he did, heading straight at goalkeeper Jordan Pickford when well positioned to score. Either side of the Everton custodian and van Dijk would have been celebrating debut goal in the 63rd minute.
That will matter little to van Dijk or any Liverpool supporter now, though, after his late heroics sealed a dramatic win for the home side. Helped out by Pickford’s failure to collect Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s in-swinging corner, the former Celtic star rose above his marker and thumped home from close range, deflating Everton and sparing a replay – something Klopp appeared eager to avoid, evidenced by the introduction of striker Dominic Solanke for midfielder Milner 13 minutes from time.
A lot is expected of van Dijk at Anfield, such a price tag was always going to ensure that. But he could not have wished for a better start, already showing Liverpool‘s money and faith was well invested in him.