A pal of mine had a choice. He’s a marine biologist, you see, and there are two great places to do a Masters in the specifics of sea life. He had the choice of staying in Glasgow, where he had a really, really nice place, or moving to Southampton, hundreds of miles away, on the south coast of England.
A place where, as Football Focus has shown me, there are nice bridges, seagulls and nowadays one of the best football teams in the UK. Supposedly there’s even a decent music scene there. It’s far away, sure, but it’s somewhat of an adventure, a culture change, a slower pace. He picked Southampton, in the end.
Virgil van Dijk may not be a budding marine biologist, but in many ways, he and my friend James are similar. My friend wasn’t desperate to leave Glasgow. Not at all. He was comfortable there, and amongst the best at what he did/does. Perfectly good living was possible. He just fancied a change after 4 or so years. While this trumps the Dutch centre-back for time, it’s a parallel story that diverges only at the point I’m about to make: while James knew he’d fit in immediately and had the ability to shine, Van Dijk may find it a lot harder.
Everyone’s taking it as gospel that Celtic’s best centre-back in recent years (not hard, really, but stay with me) will slot right into an exciting, dynamic Southampton team and prosper in the Barclay’s Premier League sponsored by Nike. There’s every chance he will, but it’s this assumption that damages Scottish football, and the trajectory of Van Dijk may serve more harm than good in this respect.
There’s no arguing that Van Dijk is a fantastic Celtic player. He’s assured on the ball, likes to move into midfield where he can, has an excellent range of passing and is still, at 24, comparatively young. However, goalkeepers aside, there’s hardly a more demanding and pressure-filled role to play in football than that of a centre-back. Ask Russell Anderson – nothing looked more certain than the former Aberdeen captain slotting in at a decent team in England, and getting into the Scotland squad on the regular. As it came to pass, a combination of bad luck and injuries put paid to that.
Anderson and Van Dijk’s experiences may differ wildly, and as much as it’d be a shame for the big Dutchman to leave, there’s still every chance that right now, he could move there (for less than his actual worth at £10m) and be an enormous success. Another year, though. What a difference a year could make.
Ride with me, here. While Van Dijk is a very good player, another year at Celtic could make him great. While he boasts many defensive qualities, his composure has been lacking at times, especially in Europe, where Celtic have given goals away for fun. Also, his tendency to maraud can provide opportunities, but against better opposition, and factoring in the likelihood of Efe Ambrose being inherently unable to concentrate, counter-attacking teams can tear the Bhoys apart at very little notice. While it’s a great thing to see a modern-day defender playing like Ronald Koeman (Van Dijk is also more than capable from set pieces), it’s possible that with the incredible pace of the English game, Virgil may struggle.
At the time of writing, Celtic have a very good chance of qualifying for the group stages of the Champions’ League. That’s something that, barring a miracle (and with the utmost respect for Southampton and their “project”), he’s unlikely to get down south. Even a decent crack at the Europa League would serve Van Dijk well. This, coupled with a recent call-up to the Netherlands’ national team, is surely an exciting prospect for the big man, or indeed for any player. Considering his elevation into international football, a period of settled, consistent playing time coupled with European experience puts Van Dijk in good stead when the selection process for Euro 2016 approaches.
It’s not that Van Dijk “owes” Celtic anything – he’s been a bargain, and is partly responsible for a staggering clean sheet record that may never be surpassed again in Scottish football. Footballers are, by their nature, contractors. If I had the chance to sell this article to Rupert Murdoch for £300, I’d do it faster than you could say “phone hacking scandal”. It’s the same in every business, as sure as night follows day. Celtic fans in their right mind could never begrudge the roving Dutch centre-back his opportunity to play regularly in The Best League in The World™ . It’s just that Van Dijk is close to a sure thing for the Oranje in 2016, he’s adored in the East of Glasgow and he can add millions to his transfer value by fulfilling his potential in Europe, where his performances have been – it’s somehow forgotten – wildly inconsistent.
Against an Inter team that struggled domestically last season, Van Dijk was sent off, and Celtic conceded four times over both legs. Even before then, despite the heroics of Craig Gordon, the Bhoys shipped goals on a consistent basis, and while that wasn’t exclusively the fault of the Breda born Van Dijk, he was culpable. His anticipation suffered lapses, he wasn’t as commanding at set-pieces as he’s shown in Scotland, and his tendency to run into the midfield made him, and the Celtic defence, vulnerable.
If Van Dijk gets another year of experience at the level under his belt, he could be a great. He has the ability, that’s incredibly obvious. Just one more year, though, Virgil? Glasgow’s nice, is it not? Virgil, let me take you to the CCA. Let’s go for Oranjebooms at Stereo. Let me walk you to the Armadillo and explain to you that if you just give it one more year, your stock could rise, you could be a sure thing for the Dutch national side and you could enjoy a wonderful journey in the Champions’ League. I am willing to do this for you. Just answer my emails. One more year.