O Virgil, Where Art Thou? – Van Dijk continues to be ignored by Netherlands coach Van Gaal
As Louis van Gaal announced his final Netherlands squad for the upcoming friendly against France, there were many questions raised. The injection of youth and uncapped players such as Jean-Paul Boetius, Davy Klaassen, Karim Rekik and Quincy Promes in an important friendly against France ahead of the World Cup was a real surprise to many and the exclusion of Stefan de Vrij was another. Furthermore, the fact Van Gaal still hasn’t settled on a regular first-team so close to the tournament in Brazil is a real cause for concern for Dutch natives. However, it hasn’t been the announcement of the final squad which has again brought up one very perplexing question, but the announcement of the 33-man provisional squad for this fixture and the few squads which preceded it.
Yet again, despite his incredible form and impressive development, Celtic defender Virgil van Dijk has been overlooked by the Netherlands coach.
The mere exclusion of the player wouldn’t be so mystifying, but the fact he hasn’t even been making provisional squads while lesser defenders have been brought into the team ahead of him has been increasingly puzzling.
While Van Dijk hasn’t even been considered, players such as Jeffrey Bruma, Joel Veltman and even Terence Kongolo are further ahead in the pecking order than the leader of Celtic’s backline.
The three defenders are, of course, talented young players, but Bruma is not nearly as consistent or as commanding as Van Dijk and Veltman was given his chance after only a few appearances with the Ajax first-team despite the consistency Van Dijk had shown all season. Kongolo, on the other hand, is a fantastic player, a real warrior, but he is inexperienced and at the moment isn’t even a regular starter with Feyenoord.
Van Dijk was arguably the best defender in the Eredivisie last season at just 21-years-old and he carried the entire FC Groningen defence for the whole campaign. He was one of the main reasons they made it into the Europa League playoffs last term. No one requires a further endorsement than that of Feyenoord’s super-human-ultra-beast, Graziano Pelle, who insisted the Breda-born defender was the only one in the entire league to really test him in the entire campaign.
While Ajax and PSV both missed incredible opportunities to sign the youngster, Celtic swooped in and brought him to Glasgow for a meagre fee reported to be £2.6 million. Ajax coach Frank de Boer insisted he’d rather promote from within, and has done so, while PSV brought in Bruma from Chelsea and loan Karim Rekik from Manchester City.
The tall, powerful 22-year-old did struggle in his early days in Scotland, he returned from injury to play 15 minutes against Aberdeen and then had to fly thousands of miles to Kazakhstan to face 90 minutes against Shakhter Karagandy. He was erratic in that match and was criticised by weary Celtic fans and short-sighted journalists and pundits in Scottish media.
His positioning was poor, his marking wasn’t up to scratch and he wasn’t as alert as required of a defender at this level. It was, according to many in Scotland, down to the player’s inadequacies, rather than the fact he was rushed back from injury and sent to play in such a challenging and important match on the other side of the planet.
The speed at which that attitude changed was really quite remarkable.
Being hailed now as one of the best players in the Scottish Premiership and regarded by many as the best centre-back Celtic have had in a very long time says more about his abilities than it does the standard of football in the country.
Celtic goalkeeper Fraser Forster broke the Scottish record for clean sheets in last Saturday’s win over Hearts and came close to equalling and breaking the British record set by Edwin van der Sar. However, just as crucial to that incredible record as the goalkeeper was the Dutchman and star defender.
As they drew closer to breaking the British record, Van Dijk was sent off in the early stages of the match against Aberdeen on Tuesday and their incredible run of shutouts came to an end. While the odds were stacked against the Bhoys because of the numerical disadvantage, it was somewhat predictable that they would concede for the first time in 1,256 minutes in Van Dijk’s absence.
“He’s played very well and been very consistent domestically and he was superb at the highest level in the Champions League,” said coach Neil Lennon about the defender.
“He’s what you want in the modern-day centre-half. He’s big, he’s got great timing in the air, tactically proficient with both feet, he’s got good pace and reads the game very well.”
Not only has Van Dijk been unbeatable defensively in Scotland, he has added a lot in attack too. He has chipped in with four goals so far this campaign, one of which was a sublime free-kick from distance, struck with perfect precision and power.
While football in Scotland may be of a lower standard than that of the Eredivisie, he is playing in a better team than he was last term and has been given the chance to play at the highest level offered by club football, a chance he has taken with aplomb. He was arguably Celtic’s best player in the Champions League this year. As they faced a difficult group consisting of Barcelona, AC Milan and Ajax, the Dutchman was consistently solid throughout the six matches, even when the rest of the side weren’t up to the challenge.
Strong and tall yet technically sound, Van Dijk is a leader, he is reliable and overall a powerhouse of a defender and what’s even better is that he is still developing. He hasn’t regressed in Scotland, he has developed. The move has presented him with the challenge of having to quickly adapt to a very different style to that which he was used to in the Netherlands and he has done so remarkably well. Swapping the Euroborg for Celtic Park has made him a more all round, more experienced and overall better defender. So bright have his performances been that many fans of the Scottish giants are convinced that they will lose him as early as this summer.
It is because he has been so bright and generally outstanding in the green and white hoops that Louis van Gaal’s continuous ignoring of the defender seems so absurd.
The main argument to dismiss the inclusion of Van Dijk in the squad is that he plays in Scotland, a lower level than the Eredivisie. However, the fact he was so highly rated when he was in the Netherlands and has only moved forward since then should be enough to render that argument irrelevant.
It now seems impossible for Van Dijk to make the squad to travel to Brazil, but he should definitely have been given his chance in the squad by now. The fact he seemingly hasn’t even been considered by Van Gaal though is simply ludicrous. It seems there are no plans from the current Oranje boss to bring the young defender into the squad, which means that Van Dijk will have to wait and try to impress his successor, whoever that may be, after the World Cup.
He might not be fancied at the moment, but Virgil van Dijk’s time in the Netherlands national team will come and he will show his class in that instance too, just like he has in every other scenario of his career so far. It’s just a shame that Van Gaal can’t see it.