The number was eye-catching, easily high enough to be branded a coup. And for Southampton, not Liverpool. A £75 million fee for Virgil van Dijk will be a world record for a defender, a club record for Liverpool and one of the 10 biggest in history.
It is easy to call it a reward for Saints’ reluctance to sell in the summer. Easy, but arguably incorrect. On Boxing Day, a Southampton defence shorn of the exiled Van Dijk was eviscerated by Harry Kane on Boxing Day. Perhaps, at his finest, he may have prevented that. Yet before he was omitted for the last three games, he delivered a slipshod performance as they were destroyed by Leicester. Even with the man who is set to become the most valuable defender on the planet, they have a defensive record that is worse than 19th-place West Bromwich Albion’s.
If the verdict on the first half of this season is that Southampton are getting worse at football, they have scarcely prospered by playing hardball. They resisted Liverpool’s initial approaches for Van Dijk, reporting the Merseysiders for an allegedly illegal approach. They kept a disgruntled player, saw their defensive record deteriorate and slipped down the table. It hardly looks a masterplan.
Such judgments are easily made with the benefit of hindsight. Southampton have reaped no on-field benefit in the way Liverpool did when they kept Luis Suarez in 2013 or Philippe Coutinho this summer, each against his wishes. Yet part of the reason to query their logic is to ask if the advantages of showing their stubborn streak have ever outweighed the risk. They could do for Liverpool, who almost won the title when Suarez stayed. Given the strength of the top six, it was always improbable that even with a motivated Van Dijk, Southampton could have achieved much more than last season’s eighth-place finish. Instead, they have relapsed with him.
The sense was that Southampton wanted to make a statement, to prove that they are not a selling club anymore. Yet it had the feel of a stunt, a PR gesture, rather than a calculated measure based on the practicalities of each individual case.
It seems a misjudgement on several levels: firstly because Van Dijk evidently was not placated by Southampton’s close-season refusal to sell and has not performed at last season’s level; indeed, with him in the starting 11, they have kept a solitary clean sheet. That came against a West Brom side who, reaching new levels of sterility under Tony Pulis, have proved perfectly capable of failing to score against sides with far inferior defenders.
By retaining Van Dijk, they ensured a new manager’s reign began with a defence in limbo and him required to act the diplomat. Perhaps without the Van Dijk-related complications, Pellegrino would have been able to prioritise Wesley Hoedt and Maya Yoshida and given them a greater chance to form a partnership; perhaps Southampton would have been able to build around Van Dijk’s eventual replacement. Instead, the Argentinian has been picking two from three in a series of awkward compromises. Instead, Southampton have had neither unity nor continuity. Pellegrino has had his own fans singing that he would be sacked.
And finally, it amounted to confused thinking because it seemed predicated on the assumption that the big six would continue to see Southampton as their own private feeder club. By keeping Van Dijk, Southampton appeared to be saying, they would be capable of keeping everyone else.
Yet the flood of players from St Mary’s should slow to a trickle and not merely because predators are less likely to swoop for members of an underachieving team that languishes in the wrong half of the table. Southampton’s squad is peppered with players very capable of representing many top-flight clubs; but not, with a few exceptions, the top ones. The excellent Ryan Bertrand could attract bids; so, if he continues to show the promise he has demonstrated at times this season, could Mario Lemina. Most others will not figure at the top of scouting shortlists at Anfield and Old Trafford.
Only one calculation has been justified. Southampton secured an inflationary fee. It may reflect the increased prices defenders command and the shortage of quality ball-playing centre-backs. Yet if Southampton bank a record sum, it will feel an undeserving reward for a botched situation that may have cost them on the pitch.
In the recent past, they prospered by being pragmatic, by accepting large sums for players who wanted to leave, negotiating the best deal possible and moving on. It was an effective, if unsentimental, formula, one which they ought to have kept. Instead, the Van Dijk saga, keeping one who ought to be their best player to propel them to greater heights and instead sinking deeper, has revealed an identity crisis, albeit a profitable one.