Virgil Van Dijk: The Modern Defender

A beaming Virgil Van Dijk holds up his Celtic jersey for the first time. He then walks out of the tunnel at Parkhead, in awe of the towering Jock Stein & Lisbon Lions stands.

Upon giving his initial press conference for the club, he also gave an intriguing & telling self-analysis, ‘I’m a strong defender and I’m good in the air, but I also like to play football on the ground…’ for a player to show such transparency & eagerness to improve, he is truly a man dedicated to his craft. As his career has progressed he has clearly taken all pointers on board as he is slowly but surely establishing himself as a defender capable for the highest level.

Fast forward to the Summer window of 2015 & Van Dijk was signed by the eagle eyed scouting department at Southampton, a club who lead pride themselves in buying low & selling high as this was proved again as they acquired the Dutchman for just £13 million whilst selling Dejan Lovren to Liverpool for an estimated £20 million the year before.

Slotting in Ronald Koeman’s plans nicely, Van Dijk took up the role of the modern day libero, aiding the team’s build-up play thus allowing them to hold a higher line, propelling the rapid fullbacks in Ryan Bertrand & Cedric Soares foward. As partner in crime José Fonte was better equipped at being the more ‘defensive’ defender of the two, Southampton benefited from their centre-backs being on the same wavelength. They were rarely miles apart when defending plus they produced 5 league goals combined, contributing at both ends of the field.

Southampton ended the 2015-16 Premier League season in 6th place. This was their highest finish in the Premier League era as they also only finished 3 points off of 4th placed Manchester City. They were commended as a squad for the quality, evident by the amount of praise received collectively & individually. Over the following Summer they saw key men such as Victor Wanyama, Sadio Mané & Graziano Pellè prized away from St.Mary’s. Virgil Van Dijk was firmly locked away, Southampton had already let most of their prize assets leave & they weren’t prepared to let another gem go.

This year could be the year he does leave but what will clubs be getting exactly if they do splash out on the 25 year old?

Aerial Prowess

In his first game for Celtic, Van Dijk managed to score two headers & this was more a result of his ability than a stroke of luck. Van Dijk is 6ft 2 inches tall & is certainly a bulky individual, making him a force to be reckoned with in either penalty area. During his time at Celtic, a late run into the box followed by a powerful header became one of his many trademarks.

This year, Van Dijk has won 75% of his aerial duels this season which is the joint-highest in the league, only being matched on percentage by Jan Vertonghen who has registered just two more successful aerial duels.

For a centre-back to be so self-assured in the air it is reassuring to know that he can handle a league that has teams multiple that rely on the tried & tested long-ball tactic which is also something Van Dijk loathes & takes as a personal insult if tried against him.

Possessing the leap of a salmon, Van Dijk is clearly no slouch. He gets rid of danger before it even has a chance to develop but despite being a near unfaultable destroyer he is not totally adverse to the most beautiful part of the game; creating.

Distribution from the Back

Now this is where it gets interesting.

When a centre-back can help build up play with ease, it opens us a number of avenues for a team. They can play a higher defensive line as they can trust the centre-back to recycle the ball appropriately, they can also resort to the less favourable long ball style if needed but most importantly it is fundamental to a team who aim to keep possession or are looking to break a team that likes to defend deep.

Van Dijk is lucky to have had the benefit of playing in teams that either aim to or by default, have large amounts of possession therefore granting him the time & space on the ball to bring it out of defence. It also seems as though this year that he has honed in on this part of his game. Comparing his statistics from last season to this season, his pass accuracy has improved from 83% to 84%. It may see small but the margins at the top level are so slim that the most minor of improvements can become vast in the grand scheme of things. His forward passes per game have also improved from 31.24 to 36.86 per game.

Virgil Van Dijk has the furthest pass accuracy at Southampton for any outfield player, with an average pass length of around 22 metres. Many managers who have a possession based style may well have the Dutchman on their radars & rightly so, as the 25 year old certainly won’t be short of suitors come July.


Perhaps the least discussed dimension of his game, Virgil Van Dijk is also able to time many of his tackles & interceptions well. Although his career total of 33 yellow cards & 5 red cards to date doesn’t fully support this, he leads his team in total interceptions, clearances & blocks with Maya Yoshida only matching him in the last two metrics. He is at the stage where he is shedding his recklessness & clumsy tackling as he sands off the edges to develop himself into the best player he can be – and then some.

With Virgil Van Dijk also admitting that a personal ambition of his is to play in the Champions League, Southampton fans may poke holes in Claude Puel’s theory that Van Dijk is set to stay & if you add in interested parties such as Liverpool, Manchester City & Chelsea, you wouldn’t be wrong for believing a transfer away for the defender isn’t on the cards.

Photo Credit: Action Images

By: Ham Mpanga