When it was announced that Toby Alderweireld’s loan spell at Southampton wasn’t to be made permanent; after the Atlético centre-back made the move to Tottenham, it was a big blow to Ronald Koeman. The Belgian signed on transfer deadline day for the season after failing to break into the reigning Spanish champions’ side, but Alderweireld was superb. Helping Koeman’s new-look Saints side to the second best defensive record in the league, he had become a fans’ favourite. Yet, as the former Ajax defender has gone onto impress at White Hart Lane alongside compatriot Jan Vertonghen, his replacement at St Mary’s has meant that Southampton haven’t been left with an Alderweireld-sized gap at the back.
Coming through the much-vaunted Groningen academy that Ronald and Erwin Koeman had been trained at in their youth, Virgil Van Dijk was always someone that was very familiar to the Saints’ manager and his number two. Another reason that the former Feyenoord manager kept an eye on Van Dijk is because he is incredibly similar in style to Koeman. A centre-half comfortable with bringing the ball out from back, the 6’4” Dutchman is a threat from set pieces; whether in the air or from striking a dead-ball himself.
Arriving in Scotland from Groningen for a bargain £2.6m in 2013, the then-21 year old became a fans’ favourite. As Southampton had just bought Victor Wanyama from the Glasgow giants and would later sign Bhoys keeper Fraser Forster, it was inevitable that Van Dijk would catch the eye of impressed scouts. It was alleged that Koeman wanted his compatriot when he stepped in the door at the Staplewood complex in the summer of 2014, but after signing Forster for around £10 million, the Celtic hierarchy were averse to the idea of losing another of their key players.
However, with the Scottish champions failing to qualify for the Champions League group stage this season, Van Dijk was soon on his way to Southampton. His debut away at West Brom showcased his ability – the game may have ended 0-0, but the Dutchman looked every inch a perfect replacement for Alderweireld.
The former Groningen man has been as steady as a rock in what has been a season of inconsistency for Southampton. Whether it has been Forster or Maarten Stekelenburg behind him, part of a three-man or four-man back-line, Van Dijk has been superb, even showing in the 2-1 away win at Stoke that he could lead the defence without captain Jose Fonte at his side.
After making the step-up to the Premier League with relative ease, becoming a regular for the Netherlands is the next step and Van Dijk’s emergence could not have come at a better time for the Oranje. The Dutch national team lacks a real top class centre-back, and the Southampton man could be just the defender that is needed. The only slight concern in his game when he arrived was the occasional lapse of concentration, but Van Dijk has admitted that since arriving on the South Coast that he has improved in that aspect.
It is inevitable that with good displays for Saints that the vultures will circle again, and the centre-back is certainly likely to be one of many looked at. In an era when bringing the ball out from the back is a real desire, Van Dijk is certain to be someone who is highly treasured. Whilst he is not likely to move this summer, 2017’s main transfer window may be a completely different story unless Saints can somehow break into the Champions League.
Southampton would certainly make a profit on the £11.5m shelled out to get his signature, if that was to be the case. Van Dijk has been a huge reason Koeman’s side are still in the hunt for Europe, and the 24-year-old can only seem to get better. Were it not for Alderweireld, the former Celtic man would have won many more plaudits. If Van Dijk builds upon an impressive first season and reaches new heights, it sadly won’t be long before Ronald Koeman will have to figure out quite how to replace him too.
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