Is Virgil van Dijk the New John Charles?
When Liverpool spent a world record £75 million for a defender to buy Virgil van Dijk from Southampton just over a year ago, they hoped they were getting the centre-back to build the rest of their defence and the rest of their team upon. 12 months on, that hope appears to have been borne out, as van Dijk has brought all the qualities of a classic central defender to Anfield, in the process improving (as the best players always do) all the players around him.
However, in addition, Liverpool may just have acquired that rarest of things, a goal-scoring centre-half, indeed a centre-half who can, if necessary, play as a centre-forward, as he has shown on several occasions this season for both club and country. In fact, so good is van Dijk in both boxes that he is beginning to bear comparison with the greatest centre-half/centre-forward of them all, John Charles.
Virgil van Dijk: The New John Charles?
Virgil The Goal-Scorer
Van Dijk’s latest goals for Liverpool came this week against Watford when he scored two late headed goals in a fine 5-0 victory against a team in form that was easily Liverpool’s best display of 2019 so far. Against the Hornets, Liverpool were already three goals up and so there was no need for van Dijk to be used as a striker. Instead, his two headed goals simply came from free-kicks when he was given the licence (like most centre-backs) to spend some time in the opposition penalty area rather than his own.
The situation was very different in the autumn when van Dijk was playing for Holland against Germany in the Nations League. In the final game in their group, Holland, who had already shown signs of emerging from their recent spell in the doldrums by beating world champions France, were nevertheless two goals down in Gelsenkirchen, which would have prevented them from reaching the last four of the competition.
Consequently, as the game appeared to be drifting towards inevitable defeat for the Dutch, their manager, Ronald Koeman (who himself was a fine goal-scoring centre-back, albeit mainly from free-kicks and penalties) moved van Dijk from defence to attack. Holland duly got one goal back from winger Quincy Promes and then, in the 90th minute, van Dijk scored the equaliser, not with his head but with a superb swivel and volley. It was a goal that any striker would have been proud of, let alone a defender.
Comparisons with Ron Yeats
In the wake of van Dijk’s impressive defensive and offensive performance against Watford, many older Liverpool fans and a few of the football writers who cover Merseyside (notably Chris Bascombe of The Daily Telegraph) compared him to a former Anfield colossus, Ron Yeats, the defensive lynchpin of Bill Shankly’s first great Liverpool side of the early 1960s. Shankly was so impressed by Yeats’s physical prowess that he famously offered football reporters a ‘tour’ around his imposing centre-back.
However, a more accurate comparison might have been with another great of post-war British football, John Charles, because for all his obvious defensive attributes Yeats was not renowned as a goal-scorer. John Charles certainly was, so much so that he was equally proficient whether he played in central defence or as a centre-forward.
…And With John Charles
There is a convincing argument to be made that Charles might just be the greatest all-round footballer ever. The other all-time greats of the game, including Alfredo Di Stefano, Pele, Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer and George Best, not to mention the two most recent entrants to that exclusive club, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, are all undeniably magnificent players. However, they were also all specialists, invariably playing in one main position. With the exception of Beckenbauer, they were all outright attackers or attacking midfielders.
Charles, by contrast, was equally adept at playing in defence and attack. Indeed, so brilliant was he at performing both roles that in his peak years with Juventus in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when he led Italy’s Old Lady to three league titles in five seasons, it was not uncommon for Juve to play him as a striker in the first half of a game, so that he would get the goal to put them ahead, before withdrawing him to centre-back for the second half, to keep the clean sheet that would guarantee victory.
Charles The Great All-Rounder
For all their undoubted greatness, Pele, Maradona et al were never capable of excelling in both attack and defence. John Charles was. In fact, such was his stature as a player that when Wales played Brazil in the quarter-final of the 1958 World Cup, the Brazilians were almightily relieved that he was absent after being injured earlier in the tournament. Even without him, the greatest Welsh side ever, which contained other fine players such as Ivor Allchurch and Charles’s brother, Mel, pushed Brazil (who at that point were yet to win a World Cup) all the way, only going down to one late goal from Pele. If John Charles had played and Wales had won, which is certainly not inconceivable, then he might have been the global star to emerge from Sweden that year, rather than Pele.
Opportunities With Both Club and Country
Virgil van Dijk has a long way to go before he can be ranked alongside a player of the legendary status of Charles. Nevertheless, in the next six months, he has a unique opportunity to establish himself as a truly great player with both club and country. With Liverpool, if he can lead them (even if Jordan Henderson is the nominal captain, van Dijk is the team’s true leader) to their first Premier League title ever and their first top-flight English title since 1990, he will become a true Anfield legend.
Then, as if that were not enough, he has a chance to lead Holland to only their second international title ever after the 1988 European Championships. The Dutch are already in the Nations League semi-finals, of course, against England, and if they can win that match they are likely to face Ronaldo’s Portugal (who play Switzerland in their semi-final) in the final in Lisbon. It is not an easy task, but nor is it an impossible one, and if Van Dijk can claim major silverware with both club and country in one season, he will secure genuinely historic status as a player.
Many expert football observers already regard van Dijk as the best defender in the world. If in the coming months he can couple his defensive expertise with even a few important goals, especially if he is deployed as a centre-forward, then he can genuinely claim to be the finest combination of centre-half and centre-forward in one player since the immortal John Charles.