Van Dijk’s All Right
There are a couple of things to be said about United’s last transfer window. First, it was the most successful window that the club has enjoyed since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. Yet, there is still work to be done to fine tune the squad. One position is at centre-back, and more specifically who should partner the impressive Eric Bailly.
In the summer Chris Smalling was the obvious candidate to slot in alongside Bailly, José Mourinho preferring specialists and all. Instead it was Daley Blind who received the nod and partnered the Ivorian at the heart of United’s defence at the start of the season.
The versatile Dutchman has missed only one of United’s league matches this season, the defeat to Watford, while Smalling only just started to establish himself beginning with a less than assured performance at Vicarage Road. Blind, though relatively consistent, was exposed in the Manchester derby and was in some way culpable for both goals City scored.
In 10 matches the Old Trafford side has only kept a clean sheet three times, against Southampton, Hull and Zorya Luhansk. It’s a very un-Mourinho-esque trait – a bubbling unease at the back and an issue that is costing points.
Focusing on central defensive area, it’s already clear that Bailly will become a mainstay, with comparisons between the Ivorian and Nemanja Vidić already doing the rounds. Bailly’s partner is a different question altogether, as both Smalling and Blind bring a lot of positives to the table but have notable flaws too.
The Englishman, United’s captain in Wayne Rooney’s absence, is a more traditional defender insofar as he’s physical, solid in the air, has a good turn of pace, as well as being strong in the tackle. Smalling’s passing is limited and thus tends to be on the safe side, while there’s still an element of rashness in his game as his dismissal against Crystal Palace in the FA Cup demonstrated.
"There is still work to be done to fine tune the squad. One position is at centre-back, and more specifically who should partner the impressive Eric Bailly."
Daley Blind is a footballer’s footballer. He reads the game brilliantly, has a wonderful range of passing, can elegantly bring the ball out from the back and recycles possession effectively. Whatever he lacks in a physical sense he makes up for with tactical intelligence with the key exception that he lacks pace. There’s no disguising the fact that Blind is not the quickest. If he gets turned then it’s up to others to bail him out. For all the Dutchman’s attributes he’s still a converted centre-back and though he’s picked up the nuances of position quickly he also gets caught out too often.
So is there a footballer who could combine the best attributes of Smalling and Blind? In the summer window Mourinho was reportedly interested in bringing José Fonte to United from Southampton, but perhaps the United boss should turn his attention to the Dutchman at the heart of the Saints’ defence: Virgil van Dijk. If Bailly is the new Vidić then van Dijk has the tools to become, if you’ll forgive the hyperbole, the new Rio Ferdinand. The 25-year old certainly has a fan in compatriot and former boss, Ronald Koeman.
“He is strong, he’s fast and he’s important in the way we like to build up from the back,” said the former Saints manager “He is good at short passing, he has a good long pass and he has got a good partnership with José Fonte. Virgil is also a good header of the ball, has a good shot and is a good free-kick taker. He’s a very good centre-back.”
If Ronald Koeman offers plaudits about a player’s set-piece abilities, amongst other things, then that is high praise indeed.
2015/16 Premier League Season Defensive Stats
*All stats from WhoScored.com
2015/16 Premier League Season Passing Stats
*All stats from Squawka.com
Van Dijk ticks the right boxes insofar as being Premier League tested compared with players such as Raphaël Varane, Aymeric Laporte or Marquinhos. The Dutchman is a natural ball playing defender and probably more readily available, as the Saints have shown readiness to negotiate if the price is right. Any fee would likely be on the premium end given that the defender signed a six-year deal with Southampton over the summer.
Indeed, the services of a central defender may be more pressing than most realise as the African Cup of Nations takes place in January, meaning that Eric Bailly will miss a number of United matches. As such, a move for José Fonte in the winter window is a very realistic possibility, but would it make more sense to recruit Van Dijk instead?
Granted Mourinho could opt to pair up Smalling and Blind in Bailly’s absence, after all the duo contributed to United’s 18 Premier League clean sheets last season, though the team’s conservative style under Louis van Gaal and David de Gea’s brilliance kept the goals against column low. Perhaps the more pertinent question surrounds whether Mourinho is willing to risk being left with Phil Jones and the inexperienced Axel Tuanzebe as back up.
Van Dijk would not come without questions either. How would he react, for example, to the pressure of playing for one of the world’s biggest clubs? The obvious rejoinder is Eric Bailly’s form, with the Ivorian slotting into the team seamlessly despite previously turning out for Villareal and Espanyol, hardly La Liga powerhouses.
Still, Van Dijk has the temperament to go further and be a leader as well if one anecdote is anything to go by. When the Dutchman was first called in into the national squad he was asked to deliver a speech to the group, per the tradition, before his first training session. Normally, veterans give the speaker a hard time to see what they’re made of. In this instance Van Dijk rendered his fellow squad members speechless after delivering a moving story about the birth of his first child. Van Dijk is capable of holding a room and making himself heard – leadership qualities that are not easily found.
There is little doubt that rumours will circulate about United’s transfer targets in the coming weeks: Fonte, Varane, Laporte. The list goes on, but look a little closer to home and there could be a defender tailor made to slot into the United defence. Virgil van Dijk may just be better than all right.