How to solve a problem like van Dijk

With the re-scheduled European Championships on the horizon, how can the Netherlands cope without their inspirational captain?

On the 17th October 2020, the footballing world went into meltdown.

One of the game’s finest defenders, Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk, suffered a nasty, season-ending knee injury due to a reckless challenge in a Premier League derby against Everton. Cue the media delirium and the social media posts that, if one hadn’t known what had happened, would have been worried that someone’s life was in danger.

Now, if you excuse the playfulness, it’s worth stating that losing a quality player voted second in last year’s Ballon d’Or is a huge blow for football. There is no doubt van Dijk has deserved all the praise he has received over the last couple of seasons. He has redefined central defending with his ability to effortlessly glide across pitches. He seemingly has no weakness. For any fan, irrespective of partisan loyalties, not having the Dutch colossus for a substantial period of time is a loss. 

Photo credit: Sports Illustrated

And this blow is not just a short-term one for Liverpool but a long-term one for the Netherlands, with the re-scheduled 2020 European Championships next summer slowly looming into view.

After the pain of not qualifying for the World Cup in 2018, the Netherlands’ chances of redemption at a tournament for which they are one of the hosts now look a little slimmer. If van Dijk cannot regain fitness in time, they are going to have to try to win a second European title without their captain; the platform and rock on which the rest of their play is built on. 

So what options does Head Coach Frank de Boer have available to try to fill this enormous defensive hole, most likely alongside young star Matthijs de Ligt? Here we take a look at five potential options: 

Perr Schuurs

The brilliant Ajax Academy has done it again. It wasn’t so long ago that fans were mourning the loss of de Ligt to Juventus, yet that pain has been quickly healed by the emergence of 20 year-old Perr Schuurs.  At the time of writing, Schuurs is awaiting his first international cap,  but he has already done enough at this early stage of the season in the Dutch Eredivisie and Champions League to grab the attention of Liverpool and both Milan clubs. This came after initially breaking into Ajax’s first-team squad before Dutch football was halted by the coronavirus pandemic. The performances of Schuurs so far suggest he is a natural modern day centre half – good on the ball, physically strong and with great positional awareness. He doesn’t have the experience of van Dijk, but don’t be surprised if Schuurs emerges as one of the stars of the tournament.

Photo credit: De Limburger

Daley Blind

For any Manchester United fans, the suggestion Daley Blind is the answer is questionable at best. The son of Dutch great Danny Blind had a mixed time at Old Trafford, and didn’t spend a huge amount of time in the centre of defence.

However, he has been rejuvenated back at Ajax playing in the position, and crucially recently formed a strong partnership with the aforementioned Schuurs. He certainly doesn’t have the pace of van Dijk, nor is he as physically imposing, but with over 70 caps Blind fits the bill in terms of experience and is undoubtedly a fine passer of the ball, something essential for the way the Dutch like to build from the back. Any viewers of the closely fought Champions League game between Ajax and Liverpool would have also seen Blind performing well against the likes of Mo Salah and Sadio Mané, reading the game with well-timed tackles and interceptions. He’s a regular squad player but perhaps as a foil to a more physical central defensive partner, Blind could be an extremely effective starter.

Photo credit: Sky Sports

Nathan Ake

The latest big money defensive reinforcement at Manchester City has been a part of the Dutch international set-up for a while now, and has looked impressive. However, the majority of his appearances have come at left-back, with Ake being a victim of his own versatility in that it has not enabled him to nail down a role in the centre of defence, his natural position. For example, in the eight internationals from November 2019 to November 2020, including the recent friendly with Spain, he has played there just twice.

Interestingly, both of those occasions occurred with van Dijk absent. Could the silver lining to van Dijk’s injury be the emergence of Ake in what is ultimately his best position? At 25 years of age, he is getting closer to his peak and is one of those rare finds – a natural left-footed central defender. The fact that Pep Guardiola spent £41 million on him shows how highly he is regarded. Even if he doesn’t play regularly in that position at City, being under the Spaniard’s tutelage will have him primed to make a comfortable transition to a more central role for his country.

Photo credit: Pride of London

Sven Botman

Another dark horse, in a similar vein to Perr Schuurs, is Sven Botman. Last summer the uncapped 20 year old became the most expensive player to leave Ajax without having actually played for the first team when he signed for Lille, following a successful loan spell in the Eredivisie with SC Heerenveen.

Such have been his early performances in Ligue 1 in France that he has just received his first international call up following an injury to Ake. Do not be surprised if he now retains his place long-term. There is often a late bolter into a squad in the final season before a big international tournament and the momentum is very much with the man from Badhoevedorp. He is a tall, strong and fast left-footed central defender whose decision-making and calmness seem to belie his limited match experience. Only recently he looked mightily impressive up against a certain Zlatan Ibrahimović in the Europa League. There is no reason why his trajectory cannot continue into the national first team. Over the coming season, keep your eye on Sven Botman.

Photo credit: Ligue 1

Joël Veltman

It’s seven years since Joël Veltman made his international debut under Louis van Gaal. Yet, in all that time the now Brighton & Hove Albion defender has only amassed just over 20 caps due mainly to injury and competition. Indeed, he’s been an unused substitute more times than he’s played – 28 at point of writing.

Nevertheless, the unfortunate injury to van Dijk may have offered Veltman the opportunity he’s been looking for. After a slow start at his new Premier League home after moving from Ajax (yes, another defender who has left Amsterdam), Veltman is now playing regularly for his club and become a permanent fixture in Netherlands squads, getting a lot more international game time as of late and delivering strong performances in the process. Versatility is vital in tournament squads, meaning his ability to be equally adept at right-back is invaluable. Soon to turn 29, Veltman has footballing nous, is quick across the ground, good on the ball and not afraid of a tackle. He’s not exactly a bad option for de Boer to turn to.

Photo credit: Reuters

Header photo credit: Reddit

How to solve a problem like van Dijk

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