Virgil van Dijk is set to become the world’s most expensive defender after Liverpool and Southampton reached an agreement Wednesday for his January transfer.
Liverpool have long courted the Dutch centre-half and Jurgen Klopp will be delighted to finally land his first-choice transfer target in an attempt improve his much-maligned back four.
ESPN FC assess five questions Van Dijk must answer as he prepares to make his switch to Anfield.
1. Can he operate as a defender in Liverpool’s playing style?
It’s no coincidence that Liverpool’s back four can look exposed at times. It’s a drawback to the attacking, high-pressing style that Klopp has implemented since his arrival in Oct. 2015. Speaking in the most recent preseason, 32-year-old Ragnar Klavan spoke about how defending for Klopp was “different” to anything he had ever experienced during his career.
With just a solitary midfield anchor as a shield, Van Dijk can expect to be left isolated and required to deal with numerous one-on-one duels with attackers at Liverpool. It was something Dejan Lovren particularly struggled with when he made the move to Liverpool from Southampton in 2014, albeit under a different manager. Van Dijk will want an easier ride than Lovren had during his start to life on Merseyside.
2. Will he ever be the same player again?
It’s worth remembering that Liverpool’s most expensive signing is coming off what’s probably been the worst spell of his career. His 2016-17 season, which alerted the attention of top clubs around Europe, was ended in January after sustaining a serious ankle injury. Throw into the mix a transfer saga that saw him excluded from Mauricio Pellegrino’s set-up in preseason and a disappointing return to first-team action, Van Dijk’s past four months have been a struggle, which was best summed up in a disappointing performance in the Saints’ 3-0 loss at Liverpool back in November.
But, rather unfairly, that must all be in the past the second Van Dijk’s name is on a Liverpool team sheet. Liverpool supporters will expect the elite defender they have long hoped for in 2018, and Van Dijk needs to be ready for the spotlight and attention his price tag and status as the saviour of Liverpool’s defence will bring.
3. Will he improve those around him?
On their day, first-choice centre-half pairing Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren are serviceable defenders. However, they have been at the scene of the crime on too many occasions when Liverpool’s defending has cost them points. But the one thing neither Matip or Lovren have had during their time at Anfield is a world-class partner and a leader next to them. That, in turn, could improve their performances significantly. Despite his improvement over the course of this season, Alberto Moreno is still susceptible to lapses in concentration and can be found wandering from his left-back spot. A vocal presence in Liverpool’s back four can now keep the promising Moreno in check when needed.
4. Can he make up for Liverpool’s shortcomings?
In theory, Liverpool should be better defensively now that they boast the world’s most expensive defender. Although the more-than-hopeful expectation is that Liverpool’s defensive woes are now over with Van Dijk on the books, there are still some shortcomings in the squad.
One notable issue is the goalkeeper position. Simon Mignolet has been at Anfield for five seasons now, but he’s never really convinced anybody during his 200 appearances for the club that he’s a goalkeeper Liverpool can win the league with. Right-sided full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez are promising talents, but are still extremely young and liable for errors, with the same going for left-backs Andrew Robertson and Moreno.
Liverpool will hope the performances of Van Dijk from Jan. 1 on can paper over some of those cracks. That responsibility had been placed on the Reds’ potent front line until now.
5. Is he worth the money?
It’s hard to know what’s good value in the transfer market these days, but Liverpool have had the resources to spend this kind of money for a number of recent windows. While it may seem a significant outlay, if Van Dijk can improve Liverpool significantly, then in the eyes of Klopp and owners, Fenway Sports Group, he will be worth every penny.
Additionally, it sends a statement that Liverpool are able to compete with other Premier League top sides in the transfer market regardless of cost. Van Dijk had the opportunity to join Pep Guardiola’s high-flying Manchester City and most likely end the season with a league winners’ medal. It’s a transfer that, Liverpool hope, will have a long-lasting impact in more ways than one.
Glenn is ESPN FC’s Liverpool correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter: @GlennPrice94.