Amid the applause and adulation that filled the room as Virgil Van Dijk was announced as the 2018/19 PFA Player of the Year on Sunday evening, there might have been a muted response from the Southampton table. They were the club that gave the Dutch defender a Premier League platform, a springboard to the big time. But the way Van Dijk left for Liverpool means the Dutchman is seen as no saint on the south coast.
Van Dijk, essentially, forced his move to Liverpool in the January transfer window of 2018, kicking up a fuss as Southampton dug their heels in. He was even made to train with the youth team on occasion, with the club unhappy at the conduct of the player. While it has since become a footnote in the rise of a truly world class talent, it was, for quite some time, a saga.
It was only a saga, though, because Liverpool made it one. Had they got their way, Van Dijk would have pitched up at Anfield in the summer of 2017. Instead, they had to wait a further six months to get their man. It would have been understandable had they signed a second or third choice option, such was their desperate need for a centre back at that time, but their reluctance to settle for less than Van Dijk has, in the long term, paid off.
Now, Manchester United are in a similar situation to the one Liverpool found themselves in two years ago. They need at least one world class centre back, among other positions, this summer and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, according to reports, has drawn up a shortlist of potential targets. Three names in particular have been mentioned more than any others: Toby Alderweireld, Kalidou Koulibaly and Raphael Varane.
Any of these three would undoubtedly improve Man Utd’s shoddy backline. Alderweireld will be available for £25 million this summer, such is the release clause written into his contract, with Koulibaly also believed to be on the market, although Napoli will demand much more for their defensive bedrock. Prising Varane from Real Madrid’s grips might be tougher, but squad turnover at the Santiago Bernabeu this summer could present an opportunity.
In United’s pursuit for the right centre back, they should learn lessons from Liverpool’s chase of Van Dijk. If none of their top targets are available this summer, they must bide their time rather than settling for an inferior option as compensation. They have made that mistake before and it has cost them dearly.
It was a mark of the Louis Van Gaal era. The Dutchman apparently prioritised the signing of an elite level centre back in his first summer as United manager only to end up with Daley Blind and Marcos Rojo when his top targets were unwilling to make the switch to Old Trafford. They did nothing to raise Man Utd’s defensive levels, with Rojo still a liability.
The temptation for Solskjaer and Ed Woodward, the feckless Elmer Fudd-like character who leads Man Utd’s transfer market efforts, will be to spend big no matter what this summer. United’s squad is in desperate need of replenishment, particularly in the defensive areas, and so if they miss out on their top targets the urge to splurge too much money on players who don’t warrant it could be irresistible.
Man Utd must resist, though. No more time can be wasted at Old Trafford. They are just a season or two away from becoming a perennial punchline, a cautionary tale, if they are not already at that stage. Liverpool have fought back from the same brink and the signing of Van Dijk will go down as a pivotal moment in that recovery. United don’t just need their own Van Dijk, they need to follow the precedent he set.