The new Southampton manager Mauricio Pellegrino has revealed that Virgil van Dijk says he wants to leave and is not currently in a fit “psychological” state to play for the club, with the Argentine coach having ordered the defender to train separately from the first team squad.
In his first interview since taking over at Southampton, Pellegrino has reiterated the club’s stance that Van Dijk will not be sold this summer and says that he hopes the 26-year-old will be reintegrated into the squad once he accepts the situation. As things stand, Van Dijk, already the subject of a high-profile failed attempt by Liverpool to sign him, will not travel to France next week for a training camp and friendly against Saint Etienne a week on Saturday.
Having signed a new six-year contract last summer, the Dutchman’s performances last season made him the most sought-after defender in Europe with a value in excess of £60 million. Last month, Liverpool issued a public apology to Southampton and pledged to end their interest in Van Dijk when faced with a potential Premier League investigation into their conduct.
Yet Van Dijk has made it clear he still wishes to leave the club despite the firm stance taken by owner Katharina Liebherr and chairman Ralph Krueger over his future. Van Dijk was also on Chelsea’s list of defensive targets at the start of the summer. Speaking at Southampton’s Marchwood training ground, Pellegrino said that he believed that Van Dijk would eventually return to the first team squad.
Pellegrino said: “My relationship with Virgil is excellent. I was clear with the boy, and I was talking from the first day with him. The club was clear. The club told me they will not sell Virgil. I communicate the idea of the club to the players and for me it was easy [to leave Van Dijk out of training] because I had to manage the dynamic of the team.
“Now he is not involved with the team because psychologically he is not 100 per cent. If you are not 100 per cent with the team I need to work with the players who are 100 per cent to defend Southampton. It’s easy for me.”
It was Pellegrino’s decision that Van Dijk train separately, and the Argentine is expected to be uncompromising when it comes to protecting the team spirit at the club. “The boy said that he is not available to play because he wants to leave. This is the decision. I had to say, ‘If you don’t want to be involved because you don’t feel okay then you have to train alone until this period of time is over.”
Asked again whether Van Dijk would leave, Pellgerino said: “I repeat that the club said not. I hope that Virgil can review his feelings because you know that today a player is big business. Not just the player but behind them is a lot of interests. I don’t want to say too much but we need the player, 100 per cent. I want to help the squad, I want to help Virgil, but we need a player, and I repeat, involved in every training session, not just with the body but with the mind on the pitch with the rest of the players.”
Having built his Alaves team’s success last season on team spirit and astute organisation, Pellegrino is sure that Southampton can emerge from the transfer window with Van Dijk back in the team. He has the full backing of executive director Les Reed and recruitment director Ross Wilson, the two key figures in Southampton’s remarkable trading success over recent years.
Pellegrino said: “I believe the team needs important players to be stronger but there is no player more important than all the rest. This is clear for me. There are a few examples that are more important than the rest – Alfredo Di Stefano, Pele … we talk about George Best, Bobby Charlton, but I don’t know how many others. Today, maybe Lionel Messi.
“I believe none of us are more important than the team, and this is crucial. The team needs important players, but important players need the team more than the other. I don’t know [how long the stand-off can go on]. I know I need all the players. I need the 25 players, I need Virgil to be involved in the dynamic every day and to be prepare to play.
“If the manager has got 26 soldiers instead of 23 it is better. We need everybody. When you sign a contract you are part of the team, because you cannot play your own game. It’s something we have to know from the beginning. The club was clear and for me it was easy, but I am responsible for the dynamic of the team. The group support this dynamic because we respect everybody, but we have to respect the club because that it is more important than any person.”