Virgil van Dijk to Liverpool alters the Premier League season, but should have happened before it

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<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/players/virgil-van-dijk/" data-ylk="slk:Virgil Van Dijk">Virgil Van Dijk</a> poses with a <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/teams/liverpool/" data-ylk="slk:Liverpool">Liverpool</a> shirt. (Photo: Liverpool Football Club)
Virgil Van Dijk poses with a Liverpool shirt. (Photo: Liverpool Football Club)

Less than four months after the summer’s messiest transfer saga ended without a resolution, it suddenly has one: Southampton center back Virgil van Dijk is off to Liverpool for a whopping £75 million.

The 26-year-old Dutchman can’t complete his move until Jan. 1, but after months of intermittent negotiations behind the scenes, the deal is done. Liverpool announced it Wednesday. Personal terms have been agreed. A medical has reportedly been completed. The Reds have finally won a race that turned into a marathon, and required quite the kick.

They beat out both Manchester City and Chelsea with an offer that will shatter the transfer record for a defender by over £20 million. It’s an astounding sum of money. But not many players carry enough weight to potentially shift the balance of power in the Premier League on their own. Van Dijk is one of them. That’s why the battle for his services has been so heated. And it’s why Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool knew they absolutely had to win it.

Van Dijk is precisely what Liverpool needs

Van Dijk is also precisely what Klopp has needed ever since he took charge at Anfield. The high-intensity, unrelenting system employed by the German boss requires physical, mobile center backs who can win individual duels in space. It breaks down when those duels are lost too often. Klopp was most successful at Borussia Dortmund, for example, when he had Mats Hummels and pre-knee injury Neven Subotic. Hummels was arguably his most important player.

At Liverpool, he hasn’t had a Hummels. He inherited Dejan Lovren, Kolo Toure, Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho, and quickly fell out with Sakho. But until now, he had spent just £12.2 on defenders – £4.2 on center backs. Unsurprisingly, it has been Liverpool’s position of weakness, and the reason the Reds haven’t been on par with the Premier League’s best.

So what took so long? That’s the question that could haunt Liverpool, especially with regards to defensive mistakes over the first half of this season. And it’s a valid question for Southampton, too.

Southampton navigated the van Dijk safa poorly, but still arrived at the destination

Southampton steadfastly resisted the advances of Liverpool and others this past summer. Back in June, it infamously filed a complaint to the Premier League over Liverpool’s pursuit. Come August, van Dijk and Southampton clearly weren’t too fond of each other. Player handed in a transfer request, and released a detailed public statement accusing club of mistreatment. Club forced player to train alone, but still refused to sell.

Southampton clung to some false ideal that it had to stand up for itself in the transfer market and withstand the clout of the Big Six. But it was essentially fighting van Dijk, too, while also hoping to get world-class performances from him. That was foolish. Van Dijk’s value hit its peak over the summer. Southampton should have sold, saved itself the fuss, and given itself time to move forward without its defensive stalwart.

Instead, the turmoil hung over the club as the season began, and it hasn’t begun well. Van Dijk played, but didn’t play well. He did nothing to augment his price tag, so all parties would have been better off if the deal had been completed over the summer.

And yet Southampton still got a fantastic return – £15 million more than the oft-quoted summer price. So in the end, the Saints – provided they don’t get dragged into a relegation battle – made out just fine.

Why was van Dijk’s price so high?

A lot of factors are baked into the £75 million – reported by some as £70 million plus £5 million in incentivize-based add-ons. One was van Dijk’s contract, which ran through 2022. Another is his age. Liverpool will get a finished product in his prime for several years. Those are hard to find.

The most important fact, though, is that proven, prime-age defenders are even harder to find than equivalent players at other positions. Van Dijk is a top-five potentially available defender in the world, because the best are already tied to big clubs; they aren’t going anywhere. Among players who haven’t already changed clubs this year, Transfermarkt’s top 10 most valuable defenders are all currently under contract at either Real Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern Munich. The only potentially available center backs on par with van Dijk are Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly, Atletico Madrid’s Jose Maria Gimenez, and Roma’s Konstantinos Manolas.

That’s why Liverpool, Chelsea and Man City were all so keen on van Dijk. The competition among them gave Southampton leverage, even as it became tougher and tougher to envision van Dijk remaining on England’s south coast.

Are we sure van Dijk is still good?

In 11 starts for Southampton this season, the Dutch international was bad. There’s no need to sugar-coat it. He looked like an average Premier League center back.

But there are so many circumstantial explanations for van Dijk’s inauspicious form. He didn’t have a proper preseason. Motivation had seeped away, only to be replaced by frustration. It’s safe to assume six impressive years at Gronigen, Celtic and Southampton are a more representative sample size than a few months of disgruntlement.

Give van Dijk time to digest Klopp’s teachings

Given the hype and the price tag, there will be significant pressure on van Dijk to perform right away. He’ll naturally be viewed as Liverpool’s defensive savior. If he isn’t that right away, don’t panic.

Van Dijk has never played in a Klopp-esque system. He has the skill-set to thrive in it, and has experienced bits and pieces of the principles at Southampton, but it won’t be easy to accrue mental and physical match fitness after a brief layoff and the craziness of the past four months.

January transfers are always tricky in that way. They’re especially tricky for a player moving to a Klopp team. That’s yet another reason why a summer move would have been preferable for all.

This is the logical conclusion to a topsy-turvy saga

If it couldn’t happen over the summer, a Jan. 1 move to Liverpool was always the next logical option. It just makes too much sense for the interested parties. Of the three Big Six suitors, Liverpool has the biggest need at center back. Liverpool was also van Dijk’s preference among the three. And for Southampton, he had become more valuable as an auction item than as a center back.

Liverpool’s recent form makes the signing all the more enticing. The Reds have rampaged through the bottom half of the league lately. They have the second-most potent attack in England. In the short term, a sturdy defensive reinforcement immediately turns Liverpool into a clear top-four favorite. Beyond this season, it allows fans to aim even higher. Klopp might finally have the balance that he has desperately needed.

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer, and occasionally other ball games, for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.

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