The ESPN FC crew discuss what the future holds for Virgil van Dijk.
It was the summer-long saga which dominated conversations between Southampton fans and neutral observers alike.
A dark cloud hung over manager Mauricio Pellegrino as he tried to usher in a bright new dawn at the St Mary’s Stadium.
In every prematch and postmatch interview, a visibly frustrated Pellegrino and his players were asked to provide a new soundbite on the future of wantaway captain Virgil van Dijk.
Scores of former Liverpool stars lined up to give their views on why the Dutchman would be the missing piece in Jurgen Klopp’s Anfield jigsaw while one national radio host even went as far as pleading live on air with Southampton to sell Van Dijk to the Reds.
But Southampton were true to their promise he would not become the latest player to quit the south coast for the five-time European champions.
As the transfer window closed on Thursday night, the months of conjecture was finally over and Van Dijk came to the realisation he would not get his dream move despite issuing a very public transfer request. In truth, he should have known that weeks earlier when vice chairman Les Reed made it clear he would not be let go.
But what now? How does Van Dijk begin to repair his shattered relationship with the board and the supporters who help pay his wages? Repair it he must, as he looks to nail down his place in the Netherlands squad in a World Cup season — although even that is fraught with problems considering their shambolic qualifying campaign so far. But aside from his country’s woes on the road to Russia 2018, Van Dijk needs to get back playing and impress to have any hope of getting the big-money transfer he obviously craves in the future.
Some pundits have claimed Southampton’s refusal to surrender to Van Dijk and Liverpool’s bully boy tactics will result in the former Celtic star refusing to turn out for the club again. This is an absurd suggestion because he knows his suitors will soon look elsewhere if he is not playing week-in, week-out to his high standards.
That is why Van Dijk’s only option is to get his head down, grovel and persuade Pellegrino that he is ready to be reintegrated into the first team, having trained all summer either alone or with the youth team. Not that Pellegrino will make it easy — Saints have kept two clean sheets in their opening three Premier League games in the absence of their AWOL skipper.
It is likely that Van Dijk will be given a gentle reintroduction via a stint in the Under-23 side, especially having not played a competitive match since January due to injury. It would be very harsh of Pellegrino to axe Jack Stephens or Maya Yoshida to make way for the petulant Van Dijk and doing so would also send out the wrong message to the rest of the squad.
Liverpool failed in their attempts to land Southampton’s star defender in the summer transfer window.
Not that Van Dijk will be in for any backlash from his teammates, as the changing room is a much more forgiving place than the terraces in instances like this. He also remains popular with his peers. Winning over the fans could be a lengthier process as many of them are furious with Van Dijk’s attempts to force a move. At best, he will get a muted response in his first few matches back. At worst, he will be booed.
For the first weeks of his comeback at least, Van Dijk’s every pass, tackle and header will be scrutinised for signs he is not putting in maximum effort or sulking. But the world of a football supporter is a fickle one and if he performs to his brilliant best, those grievances will quickly fade away.
It should all equate to a win-win situation for Southampton: they have achieved what they set out to by proving they are no longer easy pickings for the Premier League vultures after years of selling their best players. They have also sent out a strong message they will not bow to player power as they have in the past.
And they should get another year of stellar performances from Van Dijk, knowing they can still sell him for the best part of £80 million next summer.
A very good deadline day’s work indeed.
Alex Crook is ESPN FC’s Southampton blogger. Follow him on Twitter @alex_crook