If the sum seemed absurd, it was because we had not been paying attention. Liverpool’s signing of Virgil van Dijk in January 2018 was first regarded by many as coming at a wildly inflated price — £75 million. Now it’s simply seen as simply the going rate for a centre-back of his class, but there is another perspective from which this can be viewed.
Football still values attackers more highly than other players, which is reflected in the prices for which they move clubs. Yet elite defenders are now changing hands for about the same as most leading forwards, which maybe reflects a recognition of their importance both to scoring goals and preventing them.
Teams have long been aware of how devastating attacks can be when launched from very deep. Look, for example, at the goal Barcelona’s Marc Overmars scored against Liverpool in the 2001-02 Champions League, a masterpiece of what the Dutch coach Rinus Michels called “circulation football.” The ball is moved around the pitch at high tempo, drawing the opposition closer to your own goal and then punching through them at speed. This understanding of the value of the centre-back as an essential playmaker was behind Juventus deciding to sign Lilian Thuram from Parma for £23 million in 2001 and Manchester United’s signing of Rio Ferdinand from Leeds in 2002 for £30 million, both of which were record-setting sums at the time.
The trend has only continued. At the highest level, teams are now so good at gaining and retaining possession of the ball that every member of the side must be technically accomplished.
Only a generation ago, it was common to see defenders slashing the ball clear without further thought, comfortable in the knowledge that they would shortly be seeing it again. Now, though, they tend to hold on to it longer, conscious that their team might not regain the ball for a minute or more. They’re also comfortable in possession, a far cry from the old days of thumping it immediately upon receiving it.
Still, the signing of Van Dijk stood out perhaps because it is the closest we have yet come to a £100 million transfer for a defender, a milestone that, in footballing terms, feels as significant as the first time human beings broke the sound barrier.
Liverpool’s investment in him still looks likely to be the most decisive acquisition of the season: Thus far, they have conceded only 13 times in 23 league matches, which puts them on pace to let in 21 goals over the entire campaign. Contrast that with the season before Van Dijk’s arrival, when Liverpool allowed 42 goals — more than one per game — and his value is immediately apparent. His acquisition, too, is part of the Premier League’s recent trend of heavy spending on this position, with John Stones and Aymeric Laporte joining Manchester City for £47.5 million and £57 million, respectively.
Yet Van Dijk’s worth goes far beyond numbers. For one thing, it has reminded people that Dejan Lovren is far better than the defender of popular caricature, and that when you play for a team like Liverpool — your forwards pushing high up the pitch, leaving individual players in a great deal of space — it is far easier for those who feel exposed to make catastrophic mistakes.
With Van Dijk alongside him, Lovren looks far closer to the defender who arrived at Anfield with a fine reputation. There are very few centre-backs in world football who can cover a similar amount of ground with little loss of performance. Even Real Madrid’s Raphael Varane has struggled with such a brief.
The importance of the modern centre-back could be best seen a couple of seasons ago, when Valencia visited the Camp Nou to play Barcelona. On that day, Neymar, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez played at the peak of a 3-4-3 formation and provided minimal defensive cover for the three at the back, a trio composed of Gerard Pique, Javier Mascherano and Samuel Umtiti. When Barcelona attacked, there were, at any one time, some 30 yards between the three of them, the outermost two stationed almost on the touchline; whenever Valencia broke, they were two or three against one. Yet Barcelona won 4-2, with Messi, Neymar and Suarez all scoring and Umtiti in particular doing enough work at the back to draw two salaries.
In a sense, that game is possibly the best way to understand the sharply rising fees of defenders (and goalkeepers like Liverpool’s Alisson, for that matter): You are buying someone who can do two jobs — attacking and defending — at an elite level.
During Liverpool’s recent 2-1 defeat against Manchester City, the opening stages of the match were notable for the way in which Liverpool built swift and intricate attacks from their back line, moves that had Van Dijk at their heart. It would not be a stretch to see the Dutch defender, should his team go on to win the title, elected as the Premier League’s outstanding player. Slowly but surely, centre-backs are claiming centre-stage.