Saturday 19 October 2019

Van Dijk the rock on which Koeman has rebuilt Dutch

Virgil van Dijk insists he’s fully focused on international action after enjoying Champions League success with Liverpool. Photo: Reuters/Carl Recine
Virgil van Dijk insists he’s fully focused on international action after enjoying Champions League success with Liverpool. Photo: Reuters/Carl Recine

Paul Hayward

Ronald Koeman had a coffee with Virgil van Dijk this week to check his physical and mental state. Presumably, the time it took to knock back an espresso was long enough for the Holland coach to pick a captain who has not been dribbled past in 64 games.

Van Dijk was asked by a Dutch journalist here: "Are you sober?"

Liverpool's Champions League winning centre-back is not only post-champagne, but keenly focused on joining up with Matthijs de Ligt, the 19-year-old Ajax defensive prodigy, to stop Gareth Southgate's England attackers tonight.

Koeman knew he had to tread carefully with Van Dijk and his Liverpool team-mate Georginio Wijnaldum five days after their victory in Madrid.

"Both were so confident and optimistic about the match tomorrow," Koeman said.

At the same time, Van Dijk promised: "I'm completely in the Nations League mode. That's not really difficult, honestly.

Spirit

"Since yesterday we've had a very good training session, a team meeting, and we are focusing completely on the spirit of the team with a wonderful programme ahead. Things are fine in my mind."

England will have to perform to stop Van Dijk reaching 65 games without allowing a dribbler to go by him.

"I've read that as well, of course. You can't miss it," he said. "But it's not something I'm focusing on. I'm not going into games thinking I don't want to get dribbled past. I'm just trying to defend for the team, trying not to concede fouls or to lose."

Holland have progressed from the nadir of not qualifying for the last World Cup by embracing youth and a more pragmatic playing style.

The rock of the team, though, remains Van Dijk, whose apprentice, De Ligt, has the pick of some of Europe's elite clubs. Koeman had a sit-down with De Ligt too.

"I spoke to Matthijs one week ago about his future, and that's a secret. What I told all the young players maybe thinking about making a step, the most important thing is to keep playing, keep getting minutes to develop your football," the former Everton and Southampton manager said.

"That's the most important thing. How the club is playing is also a reason to make a choice. He, his family, his agent and those around the player will make the best decision for the player."

Van Dijk's life is dilemma-free and a special reception awaited him from Koeman's squad.

"It really touches you," he said.

Twelve months ago he clocked on for national service after a Champions League final defeat by Real Madrid.

"It's easier than last year, certainly," he said. "Physically it was tougher then, too. Everything is fine now and, mentally speaking, I'm in a better place now. I'm ready."

As Koeman said: "When you win, you're not tired. I've experienced that."

Holland's manager withholds the ultimate compliment of calling Van Dijk the world's best centre-half, but is nonetheless effusive: "One of the best. You have to be the manager of the other defenders as well, to know them close-hand as well.

"The best player in the world is Messi. When you have to define a defender who rarely has an opportunity of winning a prize (like the Ballon d'Or), he embodies the full picture of a defender, his radiance, the way he captains the group, his presence on the pitch, and also the prizes - the Champions League was fantastic.

"In that sense, maybe he can be an example to anyone who wants to aspire to be the best. What he does during training sessions, when we have some issues outside training - the way he moves about the team ensures mutual respect, the way he ensures everyone shows up on time.

"There's this whole attitude of a consummate professional. You need Daley (Blind), Wijnaldum, (Kevin) Strootman doing it too.

"Those guys who have been around longer than the youngsters. They are a good example for the youngsters."

Koeman was pressed repeatedly on De Ligt's next move and his potential to reach Van Dijk's level.

"We are happy to have that kind of defender in the national team," he said. "One is only 19 and needs to make a good decision for his future, but he will do that. He's progressing well. Of course, Virgil is a bit more experienced a player, who won a first big title. To become a star, you need to win big titles.

"His (De Ligt's) big quality is he's only 19. Sometimes it looks like he has the experience of a player of 25. That was great, that they (Ajax) had success in the Champions League.

"That makes the development of young players. He's a great professional, really clever. He's doing extra training. He can improve, of course, because he's not at the end of his qualities.

"That's normal for someone of 19. He can develop his ball construction from behind. But he's a great player already at this age. He will be better in some years. Let's hope he will choose a big, big club. He deserves that."

There, too, Van Dijk's example is the one to follow.

Netherlands v England, live, Virgin Media 1/Sky Sports, 7.45

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