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Celtic had started the second leg of their Champions League qualifying tie away at Malmo impressively but on 23 minutes Virgil Van Dijk watched Markus Rosenberg rise above him to “head”- the connection was made with his shoulder- the complexion of the tie into the direction of the Swedes. An own goal from Dedryck Boyata made it 2-0 and Celtic were once again left settling for the Europa League.
Rosenberg’s header, with Van Dijk preoccupied enough with the strength of Kari Arnason enough to miss the ex-West Brom striker’s run, was one of four goals Celtic conceded across the two legs and it was owing to that defensive naivety that they crashed out.
After bowing out to first Legia Warsaw and then Maribor at the same stage last year Ronny Deila’s team conceded 14 goals in their eight Europa League matches last term in contrast to the 17 they shipped on the way to winning the Scottish Premiership.
Van Dijk had spent the majority of this summer being linked to a move south, with Arsenal, Everton and Southampton all rumoured to be interested in taking the defender to the Premier League, and after stating he fancied a “new challenge” in the summer, the defeat to Malmo fuelled his way to the Celtic Park exit.
“If the right opportunity comes then I’ll consider it”, said the centre-half.
Opportunity in the form of Southampton
That opportunity came in the form of Southampton who completed a £13 million deal for Van Dijk late in the transfer window but that sum of money, Celtic having signed him for £2.6 million from FC Groningen two years previous, represented a gamble on the Saints’ behalf. The defender had won two straight Scottish titles and the Scottish Cup with the Bhoys but when challenged with the step-up in class of European competition he had notably struggled.
The Dutchman, who turned 24 in October, had forged a reputation for calmness and composure at the back in Scotland, qualities that often made it appear like he was cruising through matches, but that languid style often undermined him when faced with opposition of a higher level who denied him the time and space that is widely on offer in Scotland.
He had a wretched time in both legs of the 1-6 aggregate loss to Legia, saw a goal in the 1-3 loss to Red Bull Salzburg blamed on his slow reactions and had a tough time dealing with Xherdan Shaqiri when Celtic went out to Inter Milan in the second round of last season’s competition.
In the 3-2 first leg home win over Malmo, for the first of the two away goals from Jo Inge-Beret that put the Swedish side into the driving seat the defender wasn’t exactly busting a gut to get back to defend the cross. Those series of incidents would have had those who ratified his move to Southampton, in particular his countryman coach Ronald Koeman, harbouring concern over Van Dijk’s ability to adapt to the jump in class that would come with the switch south of the border to replace the Spurs-bound Toby Alderweireld.
Alderweireld has not been missed
The threat of legal action showed how well Tottenham’s poaching of Alderweireld was received at St Mary’s but Van Dijk has shown the Belgian has not been missed. The Dutchman has been an inspired acquisition, playing every minute of every league match since he moved to the south coast and has formed an effective partnership with captain Jose Fonte as the Saints have recovered from a shaky start to the season to rise up to eighth by losing just two of the nine games Van Dijk has played in.
Those defeats came with the 0-1 reversal to Stoke on Saturday and the 2-3 loss to Manchester United in which he let Anthony Martial emphatically turn him to net United’s equaliser. Dealing with the Frenchman, Van Dijk admitted, was not like anything he had faced in Scotland but he was aware of the standard of challenge he was now acclimatising himself to.
“I am very critical of myself so I want to do a lot better. That’s what I’m going to do” he said.
Huge potential and a successful partnership
The potential was clear though from the start, Koeman had described his debut against West Brom as “perfect” and in the 3-1 win over Swansea, in which he headed home a James Ward-Prowse corner to open the scoring, the Dutchman was again outstanding.
“He is strong, he’s quick and he’s good in the air. It’s great to play with him,” said Fonte after the game. “He’s very confident and only young as well. He makes my job easier.”
With the new partnership at the back Koeman’s side registered a sensational 1-3 win at Chelsea and also earned a 1-1 draw away at Liverpool, while clean sheets provided the foundation for wins over Bournemouth and Sunderland. The narrow loss to Stoke was only the 2nd defeat in 11 league games for the Saints and that run has owed a lot to the rapport that has quickly built between Van Dijk and Fonte.
It has been a seamless introduction to Premier League life when it is considered Van Dijk is still learning.
“I’ve been in five games at Southampton learned and have much more than in the previous years” said the defender who has been more taken-aback with the pace of the game more than anything. “The game is much faster in England than in Scotland” he said, “the midfield is sometimes like pinball, I had to get used to it.”
His composure on the ball has certainly suited Koeman’s enthusiasm for his defenders to build from the back and with Fonte similarly assured on the ball, the Saints don’t have to rely on their band of midfielders, Steven Davis, Victor Wanyama, Jordy Clasie or Oriel Romeu, to initiate attacking moves.
All in all, a shrewd acquisition
Van Dijk has also proven himself to be a committed blocker, a determined tackler and commanding in the air over his short period in England, as well as again bolstering Koeman’s remarkable record for sourcing out successful alternatives to the players that he is forced to see leave.
Dejan Lovren departed for Liverpool a year ago and Alderweireld lasted just 12 months as his replacement, though Van Dijk is now showing he belongs in that continuum. The £11.5 million, splashed out with more than a hint of speculation, has turned into yet another example of shrewd business on the south coast.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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