Van Dijk nonchalance leads to extremes as arrogance confused with decline

Will Ford
Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk looks focused as he lines up

Virgil van Dijk has always played with arrogance. But while his nonchalance previously had us drooling, it now has us questioning whether he gives a damn.

“It is normal that people make mistakes, that it is part of football and that is very human,” Virgil van Dijk said in response to the swathes of cutting criticism from Dutch legends after his display for the Netherlands in their 4-0 defeat to France. But claiming to be human is troublesome for a player who’s previously operated on a superhuman plane.

In the two seasons before his injury, forwards didn’t bother to attack Van Dijk. It was pointless. He was quicker, stronger and better than them. Premier League and Champions League football was child’s play to a centre-back who looked as though he had another couple of gears in reserve.

Van Dijk’s languid style, which appears to verge almost on boredom, had everyone drooling at his peak. He was Mr. Cool. It’s now coming back to bite him. Looking as though you’re not trying when you’re the best in the world is evidence of genius; looking as though you’re not trying when you’re far from the best in the world is evidence of arrogance.

“He thinks he’s better than the rest,” Ruud Gullit said, citing Van Dijk’s inclusion in the world team of the year as cause for his bigheadedness. But that award, apart from resulting in an apparent costly boost to his ego, has masked a decline that started at the end of last season and has continued to its current nadir.

“Isn’t he the best? Then show it,” Gullit continued. No Ruud, he’s not anymore.

His don’t-care air makes captaincy difficult. It’s hard to garner the respect of your teammates, to get them to share your win-at-all-costs ethos, when it doesn’t look as though you want to win at all costs. “He makes noise, but he says nothing,” Marco van Basten said. “I think, ‘you are captain, you have to solve this’,” Gullit added. 

They had watched the captain of their national team make mistakes which seemingly didn’t bother him, then do very little to motivate his teammates or remedy the problems they were experiencing. Van Dijk was “creating chaos” when you might expect his nonchalant style to spread and create a collective composure.

But again, the serenity that led to perhaps undeserved extra kudos for a world-class centre-back is having a similarly negative effect now that his level has dropped, on his team as much as on the outside world’s perception of the man himself.

Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk during a match

His aura has led to extreme reactions. There was gushing praise and now there’s stinging criticism. Perhaps he should be taken out of the firing line.

It’s all very well having a captain who’s leading by example when that example is being consistently brilliant at football, but when that example is instead one of a) not being brilliant and then b) looking as though they don’t particularly care, that’s surely cause to reconsider who you want leading your country.

That’s particularly the case as Van Dijk’s leadership appears to focus on shifting the blame for his own mistakes onto a teammate who could never hope to reach the level he’s currently playing at, let alone his peak.

We’re unlikely to see those halcyon days again. This doesn’t feel like a dip in form but a wind-down. Whether Liverpool buy someone in the summer or not, they will currently be looking for a replacement. And Ronald Koeman may also be considering the succession plan ahead of Euro 2024, by which point Van Dijk’s incorrectly perceived arrogance may have become too much to bear.