The inside story on why Virgil van Dijk's reputation at Southampton is shattered - and why they should sell him now
A star-studded cast list of A-list footballers are currently nursing a variety of ailments that prevent them from playing for their employers heading into the final week of the transfer window, yet the damage done by Virgil van Dijk’s ‘strike’ at Southampton has left a more permanent wound.
While Arsenal winger Alexis Sanchez, Chelsea forward Diego Costa and Liverpool play-maker Philippe Coutinho are all unavailable for selection for a variety of barely believable reasons right now, Van Dijk’s bitter feud with Southampton has undertones that suggest his club may be making a mistake if they hang on to their Dutch defender until the end of this month's transfer window.
Sanchez’s eagerness to leave Arsenal will be forgotten if he plays out the final year of his contract and secures what may be the most lucrative free transfer of all-time next summer, while Costa’s spat with Chelsea boss Antonio Conte is as much a personal feud as it is a battle with his club.
As for Coutinho, well every Liverpool fan appreciates the lure of a potential move to Barcelona and the Brazilian can expect a warm welcome back into Jurgen Klopp’s squad if he is available for selection once again after the upcoming international break.
It remains to be seen whether that kind of harmony can be restored between Southampton and Van Dijk, after Independent.ie were given a glimpse in a feud between Saints officials and the Dutchman’s management company that started long before this summer’s stand-off over a move to Liverpool.
Van Dijk is represented by the same group that also manage the business affairs of former Southampton manager Ronald Koeman, with the overly aggressive and abrasive approach taken by the Dutchman and his management team over his move to Everton last summer leaving lasting animosity on both sides.
So when Van Dijk and his agent strode in for a meeting with Southampton officials back in May and confirmed that he had decided to leave the club and wanted to join Liverpool, the tension that lingered from a year earlier was reignited.
When Southampton officials then learned that Van Dijk and his advisers had already held talks with Liverpool (and Manchester City and Chelsea) over a move without their permission, Saints Sporting Director Les Reed vowed to ensure his club would not be bullied into a deal to sell their prized asset.
Van Dijk was urged to accept his role as a leader at Southampton, there was talk that he would be club captain sooner rather than later and yet his mind was made up. He wanted to leave and his employer made it clear he would not be allowed to do so.
Cue a stand-off that has continued over the course of three long and uncomfortable months for all involved.
A grovelling public apology from Liverpool for their illegal approach for Van Dijk papered over the cracks in a battle that has been raging all summer, yet it did little to soften Southampton’s resolve to keep the player at all costs.
In addition, Liverpool are concerned that the FA investigation into their tapping up of Van Dijk could be re-opened if they try and sign him now, with a range of sanctions open to the game's authorities if they decide to punish the Anfield club.
Yet as they head towards the final week of the transfer window, it is hard to see who is winning in this relentlessly negative battle with Van Dijk and his management team.
As he continues to train with the club’s youth team following his strongly worded transfer request earlier this month, his reputation among the Southampton hierarchy has been shattered for good.
Despite claiming Van Dijk will be an important part of their future, the surly attitude of the player and his agent has poisoned his position at Southampton to a point that will make it hard for him to return to the fold, even if his dispute his not with his team-mates or new manager Mauricio Pellegrino.
Southampton are doing their bit to confirm that players do not hold all the power when it comes to deciding their destiny, but Van Dijk has gone to such lengths to try and secure a route out of the club that you wonder how Saints fans will react to him if he lines up in their colours for the first time since January 22nd when Saints play Watford at St Mary’s Stadium on September 9th.
Just 55 games into his Premier League career, Van Dijk has suddenly been cast as the most valuable defender in world football and after Southampton signed his fellow Dutchman Wesley Hoedt from Lazio on Tuesday, they have enough defensive quality to thrive this season without their disillusioned former leader.
We have long gone beyond the point of conflict resolution in Van Dijk’s shattered relationship with Southampton, so if a £70m offer was made by Chelsea or Liverpool in the coming days, all parties in this messy and unpleasant spat would be wise to end their war and go their separate ways.
If that kind of offer does not arrive, Southampton will have made their point and player power would not have won this ugly battle.