How lucky is Virgil van Dijk?
Background image: Polo Metz, CC BY 1.0
We don't always get what we deserve. Virgil van Dijk is.
Winning UEFA's Player of the Year is usually reserved for an exceptional player, one who proves vital for his team over a season. After a decade of dominating this award, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo lost out to Luka Modric last year. The prolific duo was back in contention at last month's end. Unfortunately for them, there was a new contender in town. Van Dijk was as deserving, if not more, than both.
The Liverpool defender had the odds stacked against him. Attackers are often preferred for the award. Besides Messi, Ronaldo and Modric this decade, it's been claimed by both Andres Iniesta, Frank Ribery. The reason is not far-fetched. The importance of creativity and goals cannot be minimised.
In last season's Champions League semi-finals, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur prevailed courtesy a single goal. Despite scoring four times against Barcelona at Anfield, the Reds would have been dumped out if Messi had produced a piece of magic. History could easily be different.
But it isn't. Messi and Co. were shut out. That's where Van Dijk comes in. Racking up goals is one thing, preventing opponents from doing the same is another. Manchester City could write a book on the subject. The Citizens came unstuck in Europe against Tottenham. Much as Raheem Sterling, Bernardo Silva and Sergio Aguero delivered upfront, their side's defence failed to hold up.
Facing tougher opposition, Liverpool did what City couldn't - kept a clean sheet. That made all the difference. Van Dijk was at the heart of it. A real commander and defensive martial, the Netherlands international deserves all the praise he's getting.
However, undeniably, Van Dijk is being helped by other factors.
The 28-year-old arrived just at the right time at both his club and national team. Jurgen Klopp had a rebuilding job as Liverpool boss after taking over in 2015. Before last season, the German tactician came close to securing silverware. In 2016, he guided the Reds to the EFL Cup and Europa League finals.
Both were achieved without Van Dijk. It proves Klopp already had a quality team at his disposal.
Then, when Liverpool reached the Champions League final in May with Van Dijk now a key member, he was unable to get his side over the line. Real Madrid's firepower was the deciding factor. On that occasion, Gareth Bale outshone his more illustrious teammate, Ronaldo.
For Liverpool, the man saddled with the scoring responsibility, Mohamed Salah went off injured. Sadio Mane's lone strike served as a mere consolation in a 3-1 defeat. Both Africans came good the following campaign as their goals helped conquer Europe.
In the Netherlands setup, Van Dijk is also incredibly blessed. Playing an instrumental role, he's supported by his centre-back partner, Matthijs de Ligt, club teammate Georgino Wijnaldum and Barcelona's Frenkie de Jong in midfield as well as Memphis Depay up top. Results are positive. The Oranje have rediscovered form at the right time.
It's worth noting five of Van Dijk's club and country teammates made UEFA's top-ten players last season. Dutchmen De Ligt and De Jong were crucial in helping Ajax reach the Champions League semi-final, beating Real Madrid and Juventus on the way. Unsurprisingly, both have since been snapped up by big guns. Alisson Becker, Salah and Mane are Liverpool's representatives on the list.
The fact remains the Netherlands and Liverpool would both be close to their current levels without Van Dijk. Yet, his presence gives them an edge. When the going gets tough, they can count on him to make the difference.
That's what makes Van Dijk not only lucky but also deserving of his accolades.