“Quality costs a specific price. With cars it’s the case, and with players too. Nobody thinks about it now.”
Jürgen Klopp, speaking after his side’s 2-0 win over Crystal Palace in August, was referring to how the furore which followed Liverpool‘s £75million signing of Virgil van Dijk in January had grown silent since the Dutchman’s Anfield arrival.
The Reds had been made to wait and then pay an unprecedented, world-record fee for their man, but such was their confidence in Van Dijk being the perfect fit for what they were building that they did so without hesitation.
Less than a year on from his Liverpool debut, an FA Cup victory over local rivals Everton in which he headed a dramatic late winner, all consternation over what was viewed as a hubristic outlay had faded; Van Dijk has proven himself worth every penny and more.
“He’s a player in this market who is worth it,” Klopp continued, “and maybe now people think he was too cheap! He loves playing with these boys, and that’s the most important thing.”
There are many factors which dictate value, particularly in a football sense. Van Dijk’s record transfer fee was dictated by Southampton‘s reluctance to sell, Liverpool’s desperation for a top-class central defender and the lack of genuine, realistic alternative for the Merseysiders to turn to.
Another consideration when determining a player’s value is how crucial they are to their team; if you take them out, how profound a detrimental effect does the side experience? And it is in this sense that Van Dijk, despite being yet to complete a full year in Liverpool red, is arguably the Premier League’s most valuable player.
Champions Manchester City have many wonderfully gifted players, several of whom rank among the very best in the world in their position. But the sheer proliferation of such top players at the Etihad means that none are as critically relied upon as less talented players elsewhere – take out Sergio Agüero, Gabriel Jesus comes in; lose Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sané will take his place; and as we have seen with the recent injury struggles of Kevin De Bruyne, arguably the division’s best player, Bernardo Silva’s presence means even the Belgian is replaceable.
Tottenham Hotspur lack a viable alternative to Harry Kane at the point of their attack, but Maurico Pochettino’s men have tended to cope admirably with the England captain’s absences, with the likes of Son Heung-min and Dele Alli picking up the goal-scoring slack.
It is a theory yet to be robustly tested due to his exemplary injury and disciplinary record since joining Liverpool, but it is difficult to imagine the Reds maintaining their superlative recent defensive performances if forced to play without their backline leader for any great length of time.
The impact Van Dijk has had at Liverpool is undeniable. Before his arrival, Klopp’s side were viewed as a dynamic attacking side with an almost non-existent rearguard. This season, they have conceded only five goals from 12 games, the joint-best defensive record in the Premier League.
Up until Van Dijk’s January 1 transfer last term, Liverpool were shipping 1.14 goals per game on average. Since then, that average has fallen to just 0.66. The underlying numbers speak to the Dutchman’s influence, too, with the Reds’ expected goals against per game dropping from 0.94 to 0.64 in the same time periods.
Van Dijk’s addition has been key to Liverpool’s emergence as genuine title contenders. Before, they were capable of beating anyone on their day through the sheer force of their attacking power; now, their vaunted forward line can afford the occasional off-day, safe in the knowledge the door is firmly shut behind them.
Deceptively fast, dominant in the air and almost always immaculate in the tackle, Van Dijk’s worth to Liverpool is about more than simply his technical and physical attributes.
With Jordan Henderson gradually working his way back into regular starting berth this season, the 27-year-old centre-back’s natural authority has seen him become the de facto captain, the effortless leader helping Liverpool break new ground in their efforts to claim a first Premier League title.
Without him in the team, it is difficult to imagine expensively acquired Brazilian goalkeeper Alisson settling so quickly in England, or young defenders Joe Gomez and Trent Alexander-Arnold performing with the steady aplomb of seasoned veterans. Van Dijk guides, eases and assures; panic is not a word in his vocabulary.
“I just enjoying playing for Liverpool, it doesn’t really matter who is standing next to me. I am happy to be out there,” Van Dijk said diplomatically when asked about recently about his preferred partner.
“We have great centre-backs here. Joël [Matip] was not even on the bench and that says a lot about our squad as well. Me and Joe are getting along really well outside the pitch and that helps on the pitch as well.”
The truth is, while Gomez’s youth and high potential makes him the ideal long-term option, it is almost immaterial who partner’s Van Dijk week to week, as his own adaptability and consistency will not alter, and his calmness and quality elevates whomever he lines up next to.
Without a league title since 1990, Liverpool are hoping to furrow uncharted territory this season. They’ve come close in the recent past, but they’ve never been so well equipped to end their drought.
With a desperately hopeful fan base, this squad of players largely unaccustomed to the unique challenges title contention presents can be forgiven for occasionally drifting into over-excitement or allowing nervous tension to breed complacency. But, although he too is new to this scenario, Van Dijk is the steady hand at Liverpool’s tiller. Emotional investment might have been a little overpowering for Reds’ leaders past; Van Dijk appears to strike the perfect blend of ice-in-the-veins calm and unwavering commitment to the cause.
“The season is very long,” Van Dijk says of Liverpool’s title hopes. “They [City] are not going to win every game 5-0 and are going to have tough games like everyone else.
“We need to look at what we have ahead of us and that is more important than looking at someone else. It is the only way forward.”
City are rightfully favourites to retain their crown, but Van Dijk, more than any one player at any Premier League club with title ambitions, gives Liverpool a chance. Does that make him worth £75million? No, that makes him priceless.