Southampton fans are no doubt warming up their vocal chords in readiness for this Sunday’s clash with Liverpool. Former Saints stars Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren are always given a rough ride from the home crowd whenever they return to St. Mary’s, and it’s a certainty that Virgil van Dijk can expect similar treatment as he returns to face the teammates he left behind when he moved to Merseyside last month.
Sadio Mane and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will complete a quintet of former Southampton men in the Liverpool squad this weekend although a sixth, right-back Nathaniel Clyne, is still sidelined with a long-term back problem. Mane and Clyne have been spared the ire of the Saints fans, who have tended to reserve most of their hostility for Lovren. Until now, anyway, as Van Dijk might provide him with some competition on that front.
All eyes will be on the £75 million man this Sunday, but that’s something he needs to get used to. The spotlight may be on him a little more than usual with it being his first time back at Southampton, but everything he does will be intensely scrutinised until the time comes when he is no longer the world’s most expensive defender and some of the focus is taken away from him.
All things considered, Van Dijk has been fine so far. He hasn’t provided an instant fix to Liverpool’s defensive problems, but that was never going to be the case, as these things take time. Goals have been conceded, but that was to be expected. It will take time to become comfortable with a new style of play and to form an understanding with new teammates.
That process is underway but is being slowed somewhat due to Jurgen Klopp’s rotation policy. Van Dijk himself has had to sit out a couple of games, and when he has played, it’s often been with different players alongside him in the back four. It hasn’t always been the same goalkeeper behind him either. None of this makes it easy for a new player.
There are still some things to iron out defensively, but on the plus side, the Netherlands international has so far proved to be a big threat in the opposition box, and Southampton will be fully aware of the danger he poses. Van Dijk scored the winning goal on his debut against Everton in the FA Cup, and next time out, he saw an effort flash narrowly wide in the defeat at Swansea. He also provided the cross from which Roberto Firmino almost equalised in the dying seconds of that game.
His next outing was against West Brom, when he went close to scoring a late equaliser in a 3-2 FA Cup defeat, while last Sunday against Spurs, he again looked threatening and went close to finding the net only to be denied by Hugo Lloris. Van Dijk was not signed for the impact he can make in the opposition box, though. He will be judged by how many goals Liverpool concede rather than how many he scores, but the Reds have not posed this much of a threat from set-pieces since the days of Sami Hyypia.
Klopp’s main focus has to be on this season, but he would also be wise to have an eye looking towards the future. Van Dijk is the centrepiece of Liverpool’s defence moving forward, but who plays alongside him is still very much up in the air.
Lovren got the nod against Spurs, but as Tony Evans wrote earlier this week, the Croatia international is prone to costly mistakes and does not have the trust of the crowd. Klopp has always been a big supporter of Lovren, but every man has his breaking point and if Klopp hasn’t reached his with Lovren yet, it’s only a matter of time before he does. Just ask Simon Mignolet.
Joel Matip has blown hot and cold this season, and though he’s not as error prone as Lovren, it’s hard to make the case that overall he has been that much better. It’s a toss-up right now as to who partners Van Dijk on Sunday.
While there could possibly be two former Southampton central defenders in the Liverpool team, there will certainly be a former Liverpool central defender selecting the Southampton one. Mauricio Pellegrino’s brief stint at Anfield in 2005 wasn’t particularly memorable, but he served a purpose. He was never the quickest, but by the time he joined Liverpool at the end of his career, the only gear he had left was first. Nevertheless, his presence indirectly contributed to Liverpool winning the Champions League that year, as Rafa Benitez would often bring him in for Hyypia for Premier League games to keep the big Finland international rested for Europe.
Liverpool are chasing Champions League glory again this year, of course, but the more realistic aim is to secure a top four position to ensure they are in next year’s competition. Currently they’re well placed to do that sitting in third spot, but it’s tight up there and could go right down to the wire.
Victory at St Mary’s would be extra sweet for the large former Southampton contingent in the Liverpool squad, but more importantly it would see Klopp’s men increase their lead over Spurs and/or Arsenal, who face off in the North London derby on Saturday.
Dave Usher is one of ESPN’s Liverpool bloggers and the founder of LFC fanzine and website The Liverpool Way. Follow him on Twitter: @theliverpoolway.