The Van Dijk Paradox: A legend at Liverpool, divisive in the Netherlands (2024)

This article has been updated as part ofThe Athletic’s coverage ofEuro 2024and theCopa America, having originally been published earlier this year.

It did not take long for Marco van Basten to reopen the old wound.

“He’s got to lead and he’s the one we’re going to hold accountable in the end,” said the former Netherlands striker. “He has to organise things and he is responsible. He is the great leader of the team and you have to organise these kinds of things better.”

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The subject of Van Basten’s ire was Virgil van Dijk, his attack prompted by an admittedly sloppy performance in the Netherlands3-2 defeat to Austria that meant they finished third in Group D, with four points from three games at Euro 2024.

It was also the latest episode in a curious trend around Van Dijk. He is captain of both his national team and Liverpool, but while his status on Merseyside is virtually untouchable, at home the conversation is rather different. Since 2022, for a few of the most outspoken pundits in the country at least, Van Dijk has become a lightning rod for the Netherlands’ supposed failings.

Rafael van der Vaart has also taken aim at Van Dijk, criticising what he claimed was a lack of “passion” in the Austria game, but no pundit has been more vocal than Van Basten.

In April 2022, while working for pay-TV channel Ziggo Sport, he spoke about Van Dijk’s development, acknowledging his rise from a defender that none of the top Dutch clubs really wanted to one who was arguably the best in European football. Van Dijk was “definitely at the top now”, Van Basten concluded, before describing him as a “grandiose defender and a grandiose player”.

“He’s fast, he can head well, he has good passing, good technique,” he added.

Yet he also felt there were areas for improvement, particularly his “presence”. Van Dijk, he said, needed to contribute more in the attacking phase of play by “using possession quicker”, affecting the midfield by moving the ball forward “in the right way”.

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Marco van Basten has been a critic of Virgil van Dijk (Claudio Villa/Getty Images)

“I think he can do much more. He often limits himself to playing the ball to his full-backs, but he has a great pass in him,” Van Basten added. “He can dribble in; he has good technique to do it. He can be much more dominant.”

Then, in September 2022, after Van Dijk helped seal qualification for the Nations League finals by contributing towards two clean sheets in victories over Poland and Belgium (scoring the winner in the latter), Van Basten shifted gears. Van Dijk did “the least in terms of initiative”, with Van Basten adding that “it is very strange that such a good player does so little for the national team in the build-up”.

In the World Cup that followed, an unfancied Dutch team, led by Louis van Gaal, progressed to the quarter-finals and were unfortunate in losing to eventual champions Argentina in a penalty shootout. Not that Van Basten was impressed. The former Ajax and Milan forward was working for NOS, Dutch state television, during the competition, so his criticisms had more traction with a wider audience.

After some especially pointed words following a 1-1 group stage draw with Ecuador, Van Dijk finally bit back: “I don’t think he’s ever really positive, so what should I do with him?” Van Dijk regretted taking the bait, later reasoning that he was “only human” and “triggered” moments after leaving the pitch. Van Gaal defended his captain by describing him as a “fantastic” leader.

Fundamentally, Van Basten wanted to see Van Dijk take on more responsibility with the ball by playing like some of the legends he’d played with or watched. From the back, Frank Rijkaard, Ronald Koeman and Frank de Boer were able to dictate the way the national team played.

In the true spirit of Dutch football, where hierarchies have often been ignored, it seemed as though Van Basten wanted the defender to be more forceful with his manager, or dare to go his own way — as Johan Cruyff was able to.

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Virgil van Dijk had a bad afternoon against Austria (Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

Yet, arguably, Van Gaal was the first Dutch coach to successfully create a culture where the manager’s rule was total. Van Dijk tried to explain that he was issued with a different role because Van Gaal operated with a back three, a shape he was comfortable with. He was in the centre of that and the two players either side of him were able to be more expressive.

“I often have the rush hour ahead of me and I am the lock on the door,” Van Dijk reasoned.

Van Basten’s comments had paid little attention to what the player was being asked to do, both at international level and at his club. Given Liverpool’s success under Jurgen Klopp, it would have been somewhat selfish of Van Dijk had he challenged the manager over style issues.

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If he wanted to play, as he sometimes did at Celtic, for example, by striding forward and scoring spectacular goals, then it could be interpreted that he showed leadership by curbing those instincts for the betterment of those around him.

At Anfield, Van Dijk has always been the ball-playing centre-back, but he has never been expected to join the midfield. While he regularly used his passing range to switch play from his position on the left side of the defence, it has been his job to cover the other centre-back, who has more freedom to drive forward, as well as both full-backs, who have long had attacking responsibilities.

Van Dijk’s pace often proved to be Liverpool’s cheat code when other teams exploited any overload.

After the World Cup, Van Dijk was targeted again, this time after a 4-0 defeat in France during European Championship qualifying, where three goals were conceded inside the opening 21 minutes.

“He makes noise but doesn’t say anything,” Van Basten said. “A good captain makes it clear what is going on. He creates chaos that leads to misunderstandings. That is what you, as captain, must prevent.”

Ruud Gullit piled in with his own observations, suggesting flatly: “He thinks he’s better than the rest…” These opinions from hugely successful and respected figures were presented as fact, greatly influencing general opinion.

This, however, had already started to change in 2020 because of a boycott led by the captains of the men’s and women’s senior teams, aimed at Veronica Inside, a prominent Dutch TV show presented by Johan Derksen, a former professional footballer who had developed a provocative reputation.

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Johan Derksen has become a controversial presence on Dutch TV (VI Images via Getty Images)

The move was prompted by Derksen comparing a Dutch rapper and activist to “Black Pete”, a fictional character in Dutch winter holiday celebrations usually portrayed by white people wearing dark face paint.

He had previously compared a Suriname-born politician to a monkey and claimed that the standard of amateur football in the Netherlands was being threatened by an increase of players with Moroccan heritage. “I will be dismissed as a racist but I really don’t give a damn,” he said at the time.

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In 2020, Derksen thought his comments were a “storm in a teacup that will blow over”, but it divided the country for years and, Van Dijk, along with his team-mates, was a significant part of that conversation. “This is not on the edge, this has nothing to do with humour, this is not the language of football,” he said.

GO DEEPERDutch football supporters and a tradition that divides the Netherlands

Whereas he was initially an overwhelmingly popular captain, Van Dijk entering a debate about racism — or, according to Derksen and his supporters, free speech — meant there was now a section of Dutch society potentially in opposition to him. Reporters would continue to show up at the press conferences of the Dutch national team but they were not allowed to ask questions.

Before the 2022 World Cup, it was suggested that the country’s footballers — with Van Dijk leading them — could have taken more of a stance about the tournament being hosted in a country with a poor human rights record but chose not to.

Amid all of this, there was the serious knee injury that he suffered in October 2020 that kept him out of football for almost 300 days and the subsequent belief, more so in the Netherlands than at Liverpool, whose fans sing about him being “as calm as you like”, that he has not been able to get back to his previous levels.

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Virgil van Dijk is hugely popular with Liverpool fans (Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images)

The evidence suggests that he is, though. Van Dijk was largely imperious for Liverpool last season, embracing the captaincy role he was given by Jurgen Klopp in the summer, delivering standout performances at big moments — none more than his match-winning turn in the Carabao Cup final.

His importance to the club is beyond doubt and it was no surprise to see Klopp’s replacement, Arne Slot, make a point of contacting Van Dijk in the days after his appointment to discuss his plans for the team.

Slot will rely on Van Dijk as Liverpool prepare for their new era next season and he can do safe in the knowledge that his skipper is physically robust.

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Van Dijk has not had a single problem with his knee since returning to football in 2021. He doesn’t have fluid on it, he doesn’t need it to be drained or have ice applied to it. He now employs his own personal physiotherapist, which has helped.

This is not uncommon among footballers and it is not a dismissal of the treatment he receives at Liverpool. The reality is, if he feels as though he needs a rub down late at night, wherever he is in the world, the physio is there when he needs him, even during the summer when he is in the final weeks of his holiday.

Van Dijk does not do this because he is following a trend amongst other footballers, who post photographs on their social media pages with messages like, “The grind never stops.” He isn’t trying to impress anyone. He does it because he has realised the value of maintaining his body.

Given his career in the professional game started just before his 20th birthday, he does not suffer from the mental burnout experienced by other footballers. Aged 32, he looks at Thiago Silva, who was still playing at a high level for Chelsea at 39 last season. So long as his body allows him to, he sees no reason why that can’t be him at Liverpool.

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Virgil van Dijk has been back to his best at Liverpool (Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

However, his durability, and obvious quality, at Liverpool do not seem to be enough to spare him his sceptics back home.

A popular Chinese proverb in the Netherlands is: “The higher the tree, the stronger the wind.” In football terms, this has equated to Van Dijk receiving the most criticism. Supposedly, it doesn’t overly affect him — he accepts that it goes with the territory and is conscious that even Cruyff, the country’s most famous footballer, was not immune.

Van Dijk knows his performance against Austria was below par, the nadir coming when he dropped too deep against a late counter-attack, enabling Marcel Sabitzer to remain onside and score the winner.

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“I know I can do better,” Van Dijk said. “I didn’t play a good game vs Austria. I personally need to improve. I have high responsibility here, but also at Liverpool, it affects me. In England, they say: lead by example. I can do better, on Tuesday I can prove myself again.”

History suggests that Van Dijk will return to his usual level soon enough. But the last few days have been a reminder, if one were needed, that there is no shortage of critics ready to take aim at him if he does not.

Additional reporting: James Pearce

(Top photos: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images; Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images; design: Samuel Richardson)

The Van Dijk Paradox: A legend at Liverpool, divisive in the Netherlands (2024)

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