Not many teams have been able to keep the back of their net pristine when up against Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool this season, but Southampton became just the third team to shut out the Reds in 2016/17 – after Burnley and Manchester United – and, more than anyone else, they had Virgil van Dijk to thank for it.
It has almost become boring to sing the Dutchman’s praises, with the 25-year-old paying dividends on Southampton’s £13 million investment week after week, but his start to this campaign has been so impressive that he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the Premier League poster boys Eden Hazard, Paul Pogba, Mesut Özil and Harry Kane.
That begs the question: is Virgil van Dijk a legitimate contender for the PFA Player of the Year award? My short answer is that yes, he should be. Now here’s the longer one.
It is admittedly going to be tough for any non-goalscorer to win the award that Riyad Mahrez collected last year, as evidenced by the fact that no defender has won it since John Terry did so for his performances in the 2004/05 season. In the meantime, Steven Gerrard, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs, Wayne Rooney, Gareth Bale, Robin van Persie, Luis Suárez, Eden Hazard and Mahrez himself have all got their hands on the gong, with the scorers of goals clearly more valued than the perceived spoilsports who deny them.
Yet Van Dijk’s performances have been so dominant and Southampton’s fourth-best defence so eye-catching that he is receiving more plaudits than any centre-back in recent memory. Other ‘big club’ defenders have certainly had more column inches dedicated to their name, but the former Celtic man is receiving far more praise than he is criticism – with the only black marks concerning the fact that he sometimes tries to do too much when in possession.
No other defender has won the ball in the air more than the 37 times Van Dijk has done so, while the Southampton man has also excelled in his tackling, as he demonstrated on Saturday afternoon when he raced back to block Sadio Mané’s shot just in time.
His leadership is also to be commended, with the six-foot-four-inch giant proving to be coach Claude Puel’s defensive conductor with the way in which he tirelessly commands and orchestrates the shape of the back line. Then against Inter Milan in the Europa League, the man who had been handed the armband for the evening delivered a captain’s performance at the back and at the other end, where he pounced to equalise and set Saints up for a memorable win.
Puel certainly wasn’t kidding around when he said that Van Dijk can become one of the top five defenders in the world and, in his current form, you have to wonder whether he might already be knocking on the door of that category. Looking solely around the rest of England, there are few defenders currently playing as well as the man who won the Southampton Player of the Season award last year. Toby Alderweireld, Curtis Davies and Laurent Koscielny have all similarly impressed, but, in this author’s humble opinion, Van Dijk has led the way so far and is showing no signs of slowing down.
So will that be enough to win the PFA Player of the Year award? Perhaps it should be, but the unfortunate truth – for those who appreciate a crunching last-ditch tackle as much as a top corner rocket – is that it probably won’t be.
History tells us that defensive excellence rarely makes it past the six-man shortlist, while there were no defenders making the cut last season. Van Dijk, if he keeps up his current performance, will surely make the final half a dozen at the end of this term, but to win the whole thing is close to impossible for a defender, especially one not turning out for a higher profile club.