Virgil van Dijk has recalled his “unforgettable” first start as a senior professional with FC Groningen, in which he scored twice and assisted once as a striker.
In his year-and-a-half with Liverpool so far, Van Dijk has established himself as the best centre-back in world football, and will be vying for the 2019 Ballon d’Or.
But at the start of the decade, he was struggling to break through as a youngster at Groningen, having joined the Eredivisie side from boyhood club Willem II in 2010.
Van Dijk’s debut season came at the end of 2010/11, coming off the bench for his first outing in a 4-2 win over ADO Den Haag in the league, with his full debut coming against the same side later that month.
“I came on in the game when we lost 5-1 as a right-back, and I started the return game as a centre-back, I think.”
The Dutchman, in fact, began the game at right-back, and at the break had seen his side concede again as Lex Immers cancelled out Tim Matavz’s opener.
As he told the story, details such as the half-time score were clearly hazy for Van Dijk, but his memories of 45 minutes—plus six minutes of extra time—up front are, in his words, “unforgettable.”
“[We were] 1-0 [up] after half-time, 6-1 down [on aggregate], and in the second half I started as a striker,” he continued.
“I scored a terrible free-kick, but it counted obviously, and I scored one on the break.
“In the end we were 5-1 up, unluckily I had to get subbed because I had cramp and couldn’t walk anymore.
“We lost on penalties, but that day was unforgettable for me, and after that I think I made a little bit of a name [for myself] at the club at the time.
“And the year after I played almost every game.”
Watching back, Van Dijk showed a great burst of pace to net his second of the afternoon, while his knock-ons from long balls led to a host of chances that should, perhaps, have won Groningen the game.
Ultimately, they lost 4-3 on penalties, relinquishing a spot in the Europa League for 2011/12.
His free-kick was not “terrible,” though ADO goalkeeper Gino Coutinho could have done better to keep it out.
And it remains a wonder that he is yet to take one for Liverpool, having honed his craft on set-pieces further at Celtic.
As Van Dijk attested, this game boosted his reputation significantly at Groningen, and he was installed almost immediately as a first-choice starter at centre-back the following campaign.
It is in this role that he is, clearly, at his best, but Jurgen Klopp has not been averse to throwing centre-backs up front in must-win situations before.
But Van Dijk ended his story by stressing that he would prefer to stay in his natural role.
“I know that with my height I can be dangerous, and in that particular game it worked a lot,” he concluded. “But just leave me at the back!”