It has been some 12 months for Virgil van Dijk.
Just after Christmas 2017, he agreed to leave Southampton in a world-record £75,000,000 transfer for a defender and join Liverpool in the January window following long-standing interest in his services.
The Reds were 20 points or so off the pace set by runaway Premier League leaders Manchester City at the time and lacking a commanding centre back to marshal their defence.
Since Van Dijk arrived at Anfield with that massive price tag to justify, however, he’s played in a Champions League final and kept clean sheets in more than half (18/32) of the Premier League matches he’s figured in.
Liverpool have improved from a distant fourth behind Man City at the time the Dutch defender joined them to top the league table at Christmas.
Jurgen Klopp had to pay handsomely to get the missing piece of the puzzle, but his team now hold every chance of ending the Reds’ long wait for Premier League glory.
Bookmakers have reacted to Liverpool being top at Christmas by cutting their price for a title triumph. William Hill’s Premier League betting now has them at 15/8, with City still odds-on to retain.
Van Dijk enjoyed a perfect start to life with the Reds, endearing himself quickly to the Kop by scoring a late debut winner in the FA Cup third round Merseyside derby against local rivals Everton.
With fans quickly onside, he has gone about repaying the considerable outlay with a string of fine defensive performances – notably helping Klopp’s crew shut Man City out in two of the three matches he’s played against them so far since joining Liverpool.
When Van Dijk sat out the January 2018 encounter between the two teams shortly after his arrival with a thigh problem, the Reds also did win but needed to outscore City 4-3 in order to do so.
Since the Dutchman made his Premier League debut, Liverpool haven’t conceded more than two goals in a league game. They remain unbeaten up until Christmas in top flight matches and it’s clear that Van Dijk is a key part of that.
While the likes of Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino continue to score goals up front, supplemented by summer signing Xherdan Shaqiri, that much improved defensive record is behind the Reds’ elevation to the Premier League summit.
Liverpool have conceded just seven goals in 18 league matches up to Christmas – almost once every three games. Is it any wonder, then, that Van Dijk is being touted as a PFA Premier League Player of the Year candidate?
There has been considerable market support behind the Dutchman, especially since he scored the second goal in a 2-0 pre-Christmas victory at Wolves, who is now among the favourites to receive the annual award voted for by fellow professionals.
Salah got the PFA gong last year, having also won the Premier League Golden Boot, Football Writers’ Association, PFA Fans’ Player of the Year and Football Supporters’ Federation prizes.