To watch Virgil van Dijk defend is to be completely immersed in an overwhelming sense of serenity.
A chaotic, confusing world grinds to a halt every time the ball enters the Dutchman’s orbit, even when you’re surrounded by 50,000 people singing Allez, Allez, Allez.
It’s difficult to imagine the 27-year-old as anything other than a Ballon d’Or candidate who can take his pick of rent-free accommodation in various attackers’ heads across Europe.
But, on 1 May 2011, Van Dijk was just an 18-year-old taking his first top-flight steps in front of roughly 15,000 people in the Dutch capital of The Hague.
Van Dijk entered the pitch for Swedish midfielder Petter Andersson with 18 minutes of FC Groningen’s eventual 4-2 win against Den Haag left to play.
It was the penultimate game of the 2010/11 Eredivisie campaign in which a Groningen squad containing Dusan Tadic finished fifth, qualifying for a Europa League play-off place in the process.
In Groningen’s final game of the regular season, a 0-0 draw with PSV Eindhoven, Van Dijk again replaced Andersson, clocking up another 13 minutes of professional football. The foundations were being laid.
Finland international Tim Sparv shared a pitch with Van Dijk during the Dutchman’s emergence at Groningen. He remembers a ‘confident, big, happy, laid-back, chatty’ character who, even back then, had ‘huge potential to be a really good player’.
“When Virgil first started playing for the first team he did so as a striker,” Sparv recalls.
“He would come on for the last 15-20 minutes and cause havoc in the opponents’ box. He seemed so confident in his own ability, even though it was his first few games in the team and in a different position to what he was used to. That really impressed me.
“You could see that he handled himself well against more experienced players and didn’t look nervous or out of place, which is always a good sign in a younger player. You got a sense that he was destined for bigger arenas.”
Andersson had been aware of Van Dijk’s talents long before the Dutchman replaced him to make his professional debut.
“My first impression of Virgil was when I was injured and training with the second team. I had a good feeling about him from the start. He was very ambitious, humble and easy to talk to,” Andersson remembers.
“From the start he was big and solid on the ball, although he struggled a little bit when it came to his decision making.
“His speed, calmness on the ball and passing ability surprised me. This, together with his obvious physical superiority made him a very complete footballer.”
Sparv, who was part of the Midtjylland side that beat Man United in 2016, has fond memories of being frustrated while training against a young Van Dijk.
He says: “He was difficult to play against, but not yet exceptionally difficult. He was still taking his first steps in professional football, but it’s always frustrating facing players who are both physical and fast.
“Even if he made a tactical error he could always save the situation because of his pace.”
After starting four matches of his first full campaign on the bench, Van Dijk played every minute of Groningen’s next 17 games before suspension forced him to sit out week 22 against PSV Eindhoven.
A first top-flight goal during the 6-0 win over Feyenoord and a clean sheet in the 1-0 win against eventual champions Ajax were highlights of a mixed season that also saw Groningen ship six goals to PSV and four against FC Twente.
But peritonitis and kidney poisoning ended Van Dijk’s season and was so severe that at one point he had to sign papers ensuring his mother was looked after in the event of his death.
Van Dijk eventually recovered and was on the pitch for the first game of the 2012/13 season, a campaign which saw Gronignen finish seventh in the Eredivise.
That would be Van Dijk’s final season at Groningen, with the defender joining Celtic- where he won two league titles and a League Cup- in June 2013. The Dutchman then moved to Southampton for three seasons before arriving at Liverpool for £75million in January 2017.
Did Sparv and Andersson see their teenage team-mate becoming the most expensive defender in world football one day?
“I felt he head the potential to become a really good defender who would go on and play on the biggest stage, but his development has turned out to be even better than I could have imagine,” Sparv says.
Andersson agrees, saying: “There’s no doubt that he had all the attributes to become a world-class defender, but the truth is that I have played against so many major talents throughout my career and it’s very hard to figure out who will succeed at the very top.
“I would say that what separates him and most of the best players is their mentality, and it’s hard to see that fully at first. His ability to focus, handle adversity, always learn and develop on and off the field is key.”
“I think that at some point along the way he understood what it would take to become a world-class defender,” Sparv adds.
“During his first period at Groningen he wasn’t perhaps always aware of the amount of effort that you have to invest, on the pitch and in gym, to actually make it. I still remember that myself and a few others used to do extra sessions now and again with our physical coach.
“At first Virgil wasn’t a part of that group, but after a while even he joined in and did the extra stuff that is so important for a young player who is trying to make it in professional football.
“He has definitely matured along the way and as a captain myself I can really see how he’s developed his leadership skills during his career. That was an aspect that didn’t come naturally to him when he first started at Groningen.
“As a young player you are usually more focused on yourself, which is understandable, but it’s great to see how Virgil has developed into a human being that takes more responsibility for others.”
That development will be scant consolation to Van Dijk if he misses out on both the Champions League and the Premier League come the end of the season.
Regardless, the 27-year-old’s transition from a defender who was first capped by the Netherlands as recently as 2015 to one of world’s best players is a remarkable achievement driven by hard work, dedication and phenomenal technical ability.
Now for the small task of marking Lionel Messi.
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