World-record defender Virgil Van Dijk. Is he worth £75 million Liverpool paid?

ENGLISH PREMIER LEAGUE

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Suresh Nair

FANDI Ahmad says football is about scoring goals. So, rather naturally, strikers are the most valuable assets in any football team?

Not absolutely!

Now defenders, who protect the goals and also do the crucial over-laps to assist in scoring goals, are demanding the highest-price amounts in the English Premier League (EPL).

Liverpool sprung a festive shock by announcing the signing of Holland’s centre-half Virgil Van Dijk for £75m, a world-record fee for a defender. He comes to Anfield when the transfer window formally opens on January 1 2018.

The transfer fee involved isn’t quite on the levels of that Brazilian striker Neymar’s ground-breaking £198m switch to Paris Saint-Germain but the money Liverpool paid Southampton is enough to make Van Dijk the world’s most talked about player this week.

Van Dijk cost £75m, £21m more than the world’s next most expensive defender. That now means there are four defenders in world football, who cost at least £50m, which could mark a new trend whereby clubs spend the same kind of huge fees on a defender that they spend on attack-minded players.

The new trend in paying mega-bucks for defenders just goes to show that plugging the backline is one of the keys to winning the big global trophies. Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola, for example, spent over £100m on fullbacks this season because they were a clear weakness last season, and despite a huge outlay, he has justified that spending, as his City side continue to break records by the week.

LATEST MARKET MOVE

What Guardiola has done with his latest market move is following the thrilling City tradition – by splashing the cash on men who can excitingly play at the back and yet offer a value-added hand in quick counter-attacks.

For the record, defenders, rather traditionally, usually come at lower prices. A little smoke came in the 1998 move by Jaap Stam to Manchester United for £10.6m. Then in 2001, Thuram to Juventus (£22m) and 2002, Rio Ferdinand to Manchester United (£30m). In 2014, David Luiz made heads turn with a move to Paris Saint-Germain (£50m) and earlier this year, Kyle Walker was lured to Manchester City for £53m.

Now, take a big bow, Van Dijk. He becomes the seventh most expensive transfer in football history. The signing also means that the five most expensive defenders in the world (David Luiz of Chelsea, John Stones and Kyle Walker, both Manchester City) are all playing in the English Premier League (EPL).

The big questions: Is 26-year-old Van Dijk really worth the biggest defensive bucks and can he deliver at a top traditional club like Liverpool? Can he really plug the gaps and improve the much-maligned back four?

Liverpool’s five-time League winner at Anfield, Steve Nicol says: “I don’t think he’s worth £75m. Liverpool definitely needs a centre-back, I guess sometimes you have to do what you have to do. Whether the valuation is correct or not, Liverpool needs a world-class centre-back.

“Don’t get me wrong, he’s a good player, the question is can he deliver at Liverpool? He did it at Southampton, can he do it at one of the big boys? I don’t know.”

Personally, I think Van Dijk can make the big grade. From FC Groningen, the club Fandi Ahmad once played for in the 1980s, to Celtic and then Southampton, I watched him and I think he’s excellent at dealing with crosses into the penalty area as you might expect but anyone expecting to see brute strength trumping technical skill is in for a big surprise.

Van Dijk glides over the grass with the grace of a scheming midfielder, and he is as comfortable jumping into the midfield and waltzing past opponents as he is dispossessing them. In fact, he looks as much at home in midfield as he does in a back three or four.

GREAT COMPOSURE

To his credit, he has a great range of passing and great composure (a shortcoming is overestimating his ability in some situations), and while his height makes him an obvious and very real menace on set plays, he is also a long-range shooting threat.

There is also “added value” in that Van Dijk is available to play in the UEFA Champions League when the competition restarts in February. Liverpool is fourth in the Premier League, 17 points behind leader Manchester City, but the five-time European champions are through to the Champions League last 16 where they will play Portugal’s FC Porto in February.

Singapore’s award-winning former national coach Jita Singh compares Van Dijk to former England and Manchester United centre-back Rio Ferdinand, describing him as a “very smooth ball-playing defender of world-class quality”.

He adds: “Looking at his prime qualities, he’s very strong in aerial challenges, quick both in acceleration and sustained pace over distance. Branded as the best No 4 (stopper), he’s capable of playing as either the right or left-sided centre-backs.

“What I find impressive about Van Dijk is his easy movements going on runs from the back and he’s a natural leader, always talking on the pitch and he seldom makes the major mistakes.”

Jita, who played for the Lions in the first and only three-week England tour in the early 1970s, is optimistic that the Reds will have someone who “will bring good energy” and “should become a key figure around the training ground and on the park”.

Former Southampton manager Claude Puel praises Van Dijk’s defending in the tight situations when the team is under pressure. He says: “The quality and the capacity to defend one against one is important with our game because we try to have the ball with good possession and good control of the game.

“Van Dijk is fantastic. The statistics also indicate that this is a strength.”

Van Dijk himself was quick to take to Instagram to thank Southampton for bringing him to the Premier League whilst also looking ahead to the next step in his career with Liverpool.

“Today is a proud day for me and my family as I join one of the biggest clubs in world football! I can’t wait to pull on the famous red shirt for the first time in front of the Kop and will give everything I have to try and help this great club achieve something special in the years to come,” he says.

Mark my words, the Reds are ready to fire away after the New Year start to the second half of the season. Van Dijk, in my opinion, represents a notable stride towards this club becoming serious Premier League title contenders.

And when will he start? By all predictions, Liverpool’s record acquisition could make his first appearance for the club in the FA Cup tie with Everton on January 5.

Definitely, ‘You Never Walk Alone (YNWA)’, as the Liverpool motto goes, Van Dijk will charm the Anfield fanatic fans in the weeks to come.