Liverpool have caused major controversy this week with their spectacular u-turn in pursuing Virgil van Dijk.
The Reds were believed to be in pole position to sign the 25-year-old, with the Daily Mail reporting they were set to bid a world-record transfer fee for a defender in the region of £60m.
But allegations of Liverpool “tapping up” the Dutchman – with manager Jurgen Klopp rumoured to be personally involved – led to the Reds formally withdrawing their interest before negotiations even began.
Despite all the embarrassment, however, Liverpool would be making a huge mistake in calling off a move completely. While Klopp’s side managed an impressive fourth-place finish last season, Liverpool’s defence was highlighted as an area that needed improving.
The Reds conceded 42 goals, with only Arsenal conceding more in the top six, and they kept only 12 clean sheets – good enough only for joint-seventh in the league behind the likes of Southampton and Merseyside rivals, Everton.
As such, defensive reinforcements are top priority for Jurgen Klopp this summer with Van Dijk highlighted as the main target.
The Dutchman has impressed a great deal this season for Southampton, leading the way for average aerial duels won for defenders (4.7 per game) and also managing an impressive 2.7 interceptions and 1.9 tackles per game.
But it isn’t just his defensive work that has attracted the interest of Liverpool, as well as Chelsea and Manchester City.
The Dutchman has also shown real talent in his ball-playing ability, averaging just over 38 passes per game with an 84% accuracy rate.
While those statistics aren’t particularly out of the ordinary for a centre-back, the average pass length of 22 metres – more than any other Southampton outfield player – demonstrates his impressive eye for a long-range ball. Having a defender who can play with the ball is becoming more important in the modern game; something that has been reflected by the top teams.
Both of the main title contenders had players in a similar role, with David Luiz at Chelsea and Toby Alderweireld at Spurs.
And Pep Guardiola has recognised the importance of a defender who can pick a pass and appears to be persevering with John Stones despite mixed performances.
Van Dijk shares a lot in common with Alderweireld. The Belgian – along with being one of the league’s best defenders – has similarly impressive passing statistics.
Also like Van Dijk, he started his Premier League career at St Mary’s, before moving to Spurs. Before he joined in 2015, Spurs finished fifth in the league. They have since managed third place and second with Alderweireld in the side, and with the league’s best defence either time.
If Liverpool are serious about challenging for the Premier League and Champions League, they need a player of his calibre.
While the controversy surrounding the transfer appears to have weakened their position and could cause complications, players being contacted by managers without clubs’ permission is unfortunately part and parcel of the modern game.
Whether or not the FA would take action should Liverpool and Southampton reach an agreement would remain to be seen. But if Van Dijk was as successful as Alderweireld has proven to be, that controversy would soon be forgotten.