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Virgil van Dijk’s journey from FC Groningen to Premier League star
Last Updated: 24/11/16 7:21am
Is Southampton’s Virgil van Dijk the most complete defender in the Premier League? The Dutchman’s reputation is growing. Adam Bate spoke to Van Dijk’s former coaches at FC Groningen to find out more about a journey that could yet take the player to the very top.
Southampton legend Matt Le Tissier is certainly convinced. "Virgil van Dijk is one of the best central defenders in the Premier League," he told Sky Sports. "He's an absolute giant for us. He just makes the game look so easy."
Fellow former Southampton player Jamie Redknapp agrees. "I've liked him since his Celtic days," said Redknapp. "He's come to the Premier League and is making it look easy. I think Toby Alderweireld might just edge him as the best but he's certainly not far behind.
He could play for any team in the future - Barcelona, Real Madrid - he's that good.
Jamie Redknapp on Virgil van Dijk
"He's got it all. He's obviously very big, he's good on the ball and he's got pace. He's the modern-day centre-back who can come forward with the ball. He could play for any team in the future - Barcelona, Real Madrid - he's that good."
In conversation on Super Sunday, the two men identified only one potential problem. "He loses concentration sometimes, he finds it that easy," said Le Tissier. "But that's how good he is." Redknapp added: "He's so laidback because the game becomes so easy for him."
Easy. That's the recurring word when it comes to Van Dijk. For his old coaches at FC Groningen, the men who got hold of him from Willem II reserves in 2010, it brings a chuckle. That's the teenager they remember. A supremely gifted talent who needed to be pushed.
Former Rangers and Netherlands winger Pieter Huistra is the man who gave Van Dijk his Groningen debut in 2011, but only after the youngster had spent almost a full season waiting for his Eredivisie opportunity. Before he was ready, there was much work to do.
"He had a vision and he could read the game," Huistra tells Sky Sports, "but as a young player you also have to learn what you're reading and interpret that in connection to the team's tactics. It was obvious though, that he would become a good player.
Huistra recalls a young man who enjoyed playing but, initially at least, "had to be pushed to train" in order to improve. There were also the niggling injuries that hampered his progress. "He had to become stronger and fitter," says Huistra. "He was tall but easily off balance.
From the moment he joined the first team, I saw him investing in himself - going to the gym and becoming a stronger player.
Pieter Huistra on Virgil van Dijk
"Once that was all in place, it went more smoothly and he took a lot of the initiative himself. From the moment he joined the first team, I saw him investing in himself - going to the gym and becoming a stronger player. He learnt that under Dick Lukkien."
The 44-year-old Lukkien was Groningen's reverse-team coach at the time and later became the assistant manager at the club. An excellent coach, he also has a reputation as a tough - but fair - taskmaster. Van Dijk endured a difficult relationship with him at first.
This preference for the stick over the carrot took some time for the player to appreciate. "He was very anxious," Lukkien tells Sky Sports. "He had to get used to me. I obviously recognised his talent but I thought he was much too easy, much too laidback.
"It was a challenge to change his mentality because he didn't trust me at first and he's someone who needs to have a bond with his trainer. He thought I was too direct. I think he thought I didn't like him. But I saw his talent and when I see talent I want to get it out.
"It was just a matter of maturing and getting out of him the talent that was always inside. He'd got the physical and technical attributes. He's a really good player. He's very fast for his height, he can play football and he can defend very well. He's strong in the air too.
"The key was getting him to do it every day in every session. You have to give your best every day. He was too easy. Sometimes he'd train hard, other times he'd train at 50 per cent or 60 per cent. I tried to teach him that this was the biggest thing he had to improve."
Part of the problem was that during his time at Willem II, Van Dijk had been simultaneously playing for two of the age-group sides as well as being involved with the first team. As a result, there was lots of travel, lots of games, but little time spent on the training ground.
"He was not training during the week," says Lukkien. "We used the first six months to get him fit." So much so that Van Dijk didn't even feature in Lukkien's reserve side to begin with.
The youngster might not have realised it at the time while he was being made to wait for his chance, but his progress was being keenly monitored. "I watched every game and spoke to Dick about him almost daily," adds Huistra. "We could all see that he could play."
Eventually, that chance came in May 2011 - as a makeshift striker. Groningen were 5-1 down to Den Haag after the first leg of their play-off for a Europa League place but took the tie to penalties by winning the second leg 5-1 themselves. Van Dijk scored twice.
"It was a very important play-off game," recalls Huistra. "We had to play very offensively so we put him in as a target man up front and he did well. He made his name there." He was a fixture in the Groningen team from that point on. Lukkien couldn't have been happier.
"It took six months to get him to trust me and after that he did trust me, we spoke a lot and it went very fast from there," he explains. "In the three months after that he went from the reserve team to the first team and before long he went to Celtic."
Two titles in Scotland followed and his old coaches kept track of him there too. For Huistra, an ex-Rangers man, Van Dijk was at "the wrong club" but he was nevertheless impressed. In fact, he was more than a little frustrated to see his old player ignored by the national team.
It required a move to the Premier League for Van Dijk to earn his first senior cap in October 2015. "Once you move to England you are more in the spotlight for the Dutch audience," says Huistra. "It was long overdue."
Van Dijk flourished in that spotlight. There was pressure given the reported £13m fee and having arrived as a replacement for the hugely impressive Alderweireld, but after a brief period of adjustment he thrived. Since the turn of the year, he's been imperious.
A game against Watford in January illustrated the ongoing improvement. The Hornets might not be the biggest club in the Premier League but went into that game with Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo on a run of 19 goals between them in the previous 17 games.
One of the two forwards scored in every away game in that period, but neither had a sniff against Van Dijk on the ground or in the air. It was the first of six clean sheets in a row that included a 1-0 win at Manchester United in which Wayne Rooney didn't get a shot on goal.
Premier League defenders in 2015/16
|Player||Team||Aerial duels won|
|Virgil van Dijk||Southampton||163|
|Chris Smalling||Manchester United||124|
Van Dijk finished the season having won 163 aerial duels - more than 30 per cent more than any other defender in the Premier League. This season has been equally impressive with only Burnley's late penalty consolation on Sunday ending another run of five clean sheets.
The 25-year-old, winner of Southampton's player of the year awards from both supporters and team-mates last season, remains at the heart of it all. Those Saints fans won't welcome the talk of a transfer to one of Europe's super-clubs but they will understand it.
He's an absolute giant for us. He just makes the game look so easy.
Matt Le Tissier on Virgil van Dijk
Van Dijk's old Groningen coaches certainly do. Lukkien and Huistra have gone their separate ways since his time at the club, with the latter now working in Japan, but they remain united in their belief that this is a defender who can do even more than what he's shown so far.
"I'm impressed with how he's developed, but it hasn't surprised me because I knew what he was capable of," says Lukkien. "He's a player for one of the top six teams in Europe. He can make another step. I'm very proud of him." After that awkward start, they are still in touch.
As for Huistra, he has a similar verdict. The boy he played up front, can become the man at the back. "It's good to see him growing," he adds. "He's still quite young in his career so I think he will improve further. He has bigger things ahead. I'm certain about that."