Virgil van Dijk had carried the tag of the world’s most expensive defender for some five Premier League matches when something unusual happened. An opponent ghosted past him, confounding him with a neat pirouette. Mikel Merino, then of Newcastle United, was the dueller. The young Spaniard may have to play quite a lot more football before he next does something so widely noticed.
The rarity of anybody dribbling past Van Dijk has become a part of the game’s lore. When Arsenal’s Nicolas Pepe outsprinted the Dutchman a couple of weekends ago, the auditors who diligently keep track of these details reckoned 50 Premier League matches featuring Van Dijk had gone by without anybody else outfoxing him in a direct one-to-one with the ball at their feet. From Merino to Pepe: half a century games, and almost 18 months of Inviolable Virgil.
These are the sort of facts that get magnified for a defender when he carries a market-leading price tag. Statisticians pay special attention; strikers know a slalom around you will become a special badge of honour. Van Dijk has been able to reflect on all this over the last few days with Matthijs de Ligt, who since he became the most expensive teenaged defender in his sport’s history, last month, has suffered several Merino and Pepe moments.
Van Dijk and De Ligt will on Friday form the most costly central defensive partnership in football history as the Netherlands take on Germany in qualifying for Euro 2020. They represent over €160 million (Dh650m) of fees, totalling up the sums committed by Liverpool to Southampton for Van Dijk last year, and Juventus' payment to Ajax for De Ligt.
The younger of the pair only turned 20 a few days after his move to Italy and would be forgiven if he is already longing for the carefree idyll of his teenage years. On his Serie A debut at the weekend, Juventus conceded three goals in a 15-minute period in which Napoli came back from 3-0 down. For each of the goals, De Ligt finished second-best to individual opponents whom he had been either marking, or chasing, or neglecting. Juventus' late winner, via an own goal, spared him being directly audited for lost points on his debut, but a fierce spotlight has been trained on the prodigy's shaky start.
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De Ligt has been reassured, by Van Dijk and by Ronald Koeman, Holland’s manager, since he linked up with his international colleagues on Monday. Koeman recalled his own career missteps when, in the late 1980s, Barcelona made him the second most expensive signing in their history - only Diego Maradona had at that time cost them more - with his recruitment from PSV Eindhoven.
“Matthijs didn’t play the game we want to see from him, yes,” said Koeman, “but I spoke to him.” The conversation? Koeman shared his own experiences. “My first game for Barcelona was a disaster,” Koeman remembered. “I still have the newspapers from the day after. We lost and everyone was asking questions about me being there. But if you ask them now, it would be different.” Koeman went on to play more than 250 times for Barcelona in a six-year stay, and scored the goal that won Barca their first European Cup, in 1992.
“Sometimes people think a big change is simple,” added Koeman, “Matthijs is just 20.” The defender’s commanding form for Ajax, for whom he was a regular in the team at 17, can obscure that fact, and, although Koeman has put faith in De Ligt as a player around whom to build the revival of the Netherlands national team, he knows there will be times when inexperience shows up.
De Ligt is a full-hearted footballer, more easily ruffled than the elegant Van Dijk. Witness his awkward manoeuvring that gave away a penalty against England in the semi-final of the Uefa Nations League, in June. He was nutmegged in the same match by Jadon Sancho. But that day he also scored for the Dutch, who won in extra time, with a trademark headed goal.
He had headed in his first Holland goal against Germany in March, in the see-saw 3-2 Holland defeat in Amsterdam, and will expect Friday’s opponents to be on guard for his aerial threat, and Van Dijk’s, at corners and free kicks.
Both Holland’s de luxe defenders will have taken note of Germany manager Jogi Low’s instructions to his attacking players. “I want to see us looking for the one-on-ones,” said Low, “and we have those types of player.” To Germany’s young duellers, a special prize is on offer: To be one of the few who successfully slip past Van Dijk, or to cut the feted De Ligt down to size.