It’s no mince task following an illustrious path of a cult hero. Southampton knew it would be a mere fantasy for Jannik Vestergaard to fill for Virgil van Dijk. Slowly albeit calmly, the Dane defender is taking up the challenge with aplomb.
The Saints would have envisaged another frustrating march to defeat on Saturday afternoon following Kevin Danso’s red card against Manchester United. The Austrian defender’s needless dismissal in the 73rd minute for a second booking left the hosts with their back to the wall late on.
Ralph Hasenhüttl’s team was desperately in search of their first point at home in the Premier League. Although impressive on the road, St Mary’s was no longer a fortress. Liverpool picked up maximum points on their last visit and seemed almost inevitable for United to do likewise.
Daniel James had secured the visitors an early lead with a well-taken third goal in four games. However, Vestergaard picked the best possible time to register his first Southampton goal. The 27-year-old rose above Victor Lindelof to head home emphatically Danso’s cross from the right after visiting keeper David De Gea had saved a Danny Ings effort.
Goal aside, Vestergaard was like a kid mutated into a beast after watching one of his favourite Super Hero movies. Perhaps he may have been inspired by Van Dijk’s UEFA Best Men Player award. Often a divisive figure, the Danish defender’s display proved there could be more in the bag.
Vestergaard made four clearances and completed a whopping five interceptions against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side. He also managed to make two blocks on a day where United found it difficult to get past the Saints’ wall. More impressive, though, he racked up 92.3 per cent passing accuracy from 39 passes.
Signed from Borussia Monchengladbach for £18m in 2018, Vestergaard arrived with a plethora of experience in top-level football having made 185 Bundesliga appearances across the last eight seasons. Standing at 198cm, he was the specimen defender to fill the shoes of van Dijk.
He didn’t, however. The Dane’s first season was riddled with errors. His dreadful backpass against Cardiff last season handed Neil Warnock’s side a goal. A bumbled pass allowed Callum Paterson to run through and score the only goal in a 1-0 defeat. Vestergaard, though, hasn’t repeated this error since, improving with every game.
Southampton can now brag to have found a fitting Van Dijk’s replacement. An archetypal centre-back, he combines aerial presence, strength and a decent turn of pace with an ability to play out from the back. He is perfect in dealing with danger and commanding the area.
Vestergaard isn’t all about his towering presence. Meaning there is still more to come. He made more blocks than anyone else in Germany’s top flight in 2017/18. His 1,913 passes were the fourth-most of any Bundesliga defender. He averaged 0.75 shots on goal per 90 minutes, and over the course of his career, his height has helped him score at a rate of one goal every 13 matches.
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