Van Dijk’s All Right

October 12, 2016 Tags: , , Reads 9 comments
featured image

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

Player Apps Tackles Inters Fouls Offsides Clearances Dribbles Blocks
Smalling 35 1.6 2.8 1.3 0.5 5.1 0.4 0.5
Blind 35 2.7 2.3 0.8 0.5 3.4 0.8 0.6
Van Dijk 34 1.7 2.8 0.8 0.3 7.6 0.3 0.6

*All stats from

2015/16 Premier League Season Passing Stats 

Player Accuracy Length Forward passes Backwards passes Chances created Key Passes Assists
Smalling 82% 21m 1079 421 6 5 1
Blind 84% 22m 1573 411 25 24 1
Van Dijk 83% 23m 1062 288 9 9 0

*All stats from

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.

Virgil van Dijk

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.


Rich - October 13, 2016 Reply

If Roy Keane was playing in front of that defence, or even Carrick five years ago.. I still see the immediate problem at the base of midfield. It’s a problem that may be solved in house, but somebody needs to step up to it. Hopefully Herrera can build on his good start.

Denton Davey - October 13, 2016 Reply

BigManSmalling is a notorious grabber. In that sense, he’s always a penalty-waiting-to-happen. That’s his AchillesHeel and it can come along to bite TheLads in the ass at any time. Otherwise, he’s better than OK but hardly a world-beater.

Dailey Blind might be slow but it is unfair to single him out for ALL the blame when ManShitty scored twice in the M/C derby – where was his midfield protection ? But, that said, Blind’s best position would be as the “holding midfielder” in the role that MC16 played so well, for so long.

Jones can’t stay healthy and, even when healthy, he’s never improved since his first appearance. Apparently, Axel Tuanzebe and Ro-Shaun Williams have the elite-prospect status of Tim Fosu-Mensah and/or Marcus Rashford. But all these guys are 18/19 and kids often flatter-to-deceive.

If you believe that this year is all about solidifying Jo$e’s preferred team then his biggest priority has to be solidifying the centre of the pitch. It’s now chaotic, some of the time; when Rio/Vidic/MC16/Scholes were in their pomp, it was chaotic very rarely. That’s the difference between pretenders and contenders.

So, this article is half-right in suggesting that a new partner for Eric Bailly would be a good idea but that good idea will only work when/if Jo$e gets it right with the midfield protection. And, he’s only going to do that when/if he starts playing a 4-3-3 so that Paul Pogba can have two playmates to give him freedom to do his thing. Relying on Pogba and AN-other to be the midfield “protection” just won’t work.

My opinion, then, is that the solution to central defence lies in sorting the midfield. Get that right and a duo of Bailly/Smalling would be fine; a duo of Bailly and AN-other might be even better. Virgil van Dijk looks quite promising – more promising that Jose Fonte – but perhaps a step down from elite talents like Rafael Varane and/or Aymeric Laporte.

If TheLads are going to move upwards from pretenders to contenders then the manager has some big alternatives – and a bottomless pot of money. He has to get it right or else the other changes/improvements will be for naught. Jo$e’s long track-record of getting-it-right is reason for optimism; his solution so far, however, is cause for pessimism. Is the glass half-full or half-empty ? We’ve got another six months to find out the answer to that question – and then another, summer transfer window to deal with that answer if the glass is half-empty in May.

'Most successful window since SAF' in terms of what? After spending a better part 150m and still looking for balance in the team? Give me a brake. - October 14, 2016 Reply

‘Most successful window since SAF’ in terms of what? After spending a better part 150m and still looking for balance in the team? Give me a brake.

Marco - October 14, 2016 Reply

Frictional, pumping, or electromagnetic? Your choice.

bobbynoble - October 15, 2016 Reply

If this hasn’t been the most successful transfer window since Fergie’s time, then which one has?

roger - October 14, 2016 Reply

We should have bought Garay the Argentina central defender a couple of years ago instead of the useless prat Rojo who to my amazement Jose still tolerates. I agree that Smalling has not progressed he tends to make silly mistakes and his passing is very poor. Blind is a cleaver footballer and it is sad that he lacks pace or he would be world class.
Regarding Rooney he has been a great player for United but he is deluding himself in comparing himself to Giggs regarding the transition he is going through because of his age. Rooney does not have the mind or the body to adjust to the aging process which is sad but reality is that he is a spent cause both for United and England. Basti would be a better bet in mid-field at present as he has always been a class act in that position.

Denton Davey - October 15, 2016 Reply

My son brought this to my attention:

Note Coleen’s intervention in particular. It would seem that she has “disciplined” TheWayneBoy, which is no doubt good for him as a husband and father but, probably, at the cost of the aggression/wildness that made him an aggressive player.

Duncan - October 17, 2016 Reply

I agree with previous comments about midfield protection. I think we have a team problem when it comes to defending as much as it’s about individuals. However, to immediately go against what I just said, I think we could improve at right back and centre back, despite Valencia and Smalling being…okay. van Dijk is a good shout, getting someone older with a view to establishing Tuanzebe and Fosu-Mensah in the team in a few years might have been the thinking behind Fonte. I think we’ll have to wait and see until xmas really and wait for the team to settle a bit more. We still don’t know whether 4-3-3 will start to be the default system, as opposed to playing two attacking midfielders in a midfield two, in which case you’d have to think we’d be more solid.

Pebblesmeller - October 18, 2016 Reply

Are you serious? Did you not see Van Dijks performance the weekend just gone? He is a slight improvement on Smalling but that is not saying much. Rojo and Jones to go with 1 proper center half to come in and compete with Smalling for the spot beside the beast that is Bailly. I would bring Mensah and Tuanzebe in also as either of these two lads, despite their inexperience, are already better and safer options than Rojo or Jones.

Leave a Reply Cancel