The holy grail for Manchester United since the departures of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand has been finding a consistent, physical and silky centre-back. A guaranteed 7 or 8 out of 10 week in week out. Out of the many auditions, while Daley Blind has performed adeptly in an alien position, Chris Smalling and Eric Bailly have shown the most promise.
Bailly, in particular, has shown all the signs that, while still understandably raw, he is likely to be an outstanding player for United long-term. Saturday’s undeserved draw with Arsenal highlighted the Achilles heel since the aforementioned legendary duo left United after the catastrophic M***s era. Duncan Edwards’ gurning heir apparent and Marcos Rojo have widely been deemed not up to the grade by many observers. They are a far cry from United’s conquering days, with the largely impregnable Vidic-Ferdinand axis one of the most fundamental footings for Ferguson’s final hoorahs in charge.
It comes with the territory that United are linked with an untold plethora of names year round. The likes of Godin, Varane, Dragovic and even ex-red Michael Keane have cropped up in the gossip columns of late.
14th August 2014 will hardly ring any bells among United fans. It was the day that Stretty News first talked up the prospects of one of the more outstanding candidates to potentially finally solve United’s centre-back curse.
Back then, Virgil Van Dijk and Manchester United uttered in the same breath would have drawn vast reactions of derision. A young player plying his trade in a one-team Scottish league, which presented the meekest of challenges at the best of times? You could understand why.
The former Groningen player has made tremendous strides in making his name South of the border, with his time at Southampton proving to be nothing but a complete success.
Rumour has it that Mourinho has acknowledged centre-back remains a big flaw in this current crop and could even look to address the problem as early as January. The complexities involving successfully getting a winter deal over the line are long-standing, with many sides reticent to relinquish their prized assets halfway through a campaign.
Money talks in this day and age though. Mourinho is likely to be backed to revive the club’s fortunes and Southampton are notorious sellers if the price is right.
In fact, United have been no strangers to throwing cash in the Saints’ coffers, with the likes of Luke Shaw and Morgan Schneiderlin finding their way to Old Trafford in recent years. Van Dijk has established himself, alongside the equally dependable Jose Fonte, as one of the Premier League’s standout centre-backs. Their partnership is widely regarded as the creme de la creme in terms of consistency.
Fonte was linked with United over the summer, after playing a pivotal role in Portugal’s surprise Euro 2016 triumph and with contract talks at an impasse. Yet it is the Dutchman who is predominantly winning all the plaudits.
As recently as last weekend’s goalless draw against fellow admirers Liverpool, Van Dijk showed exactly why he is so highly regarded. Former Saint Sadio Mane bore down on goal and pulled the trigger, only to be met by Van Dijk putting his body on the line to make a heroic block after a goal looked a certainty. With the furore which emerged after Mourinho questioned whether players give their all to the cause, this was a noteworthy example of what he wants to become second nature for his set of United players.
United tellingly recruited players with physical qualities, aerially imposing specimens in the likes of Bailly, Pogba and Ibrahimovic over the summer. United had historically been overpowered and outfought when things got to the crunch. Indeed, the likes of Blind and Rojo cannot boast any aerial prowess whatsoever. Van Dijk stands at a towering six foot four, which would undoubtedly aid United at both ends of the pitch.
United possess few so-called ballers in their back-line. Playing out of the back does not come easy to the likes of Smalling and Jones. Daley Blind is indisputably the best equipped at picking a pass and acting composedly at the back. Eric Bailly has demonstrated he has that calmness in his locker too, but another steady head in possession would not go amiss. Van Dijk, a student of the Dutch total football, often opts to play his way out of trouble. This was to his detriment in his early Southampton career, but now he retains that habit and knows when not to take chances. That has been no doubt, in large part, due to Fonte’s tutelage.
He is an established Premier League performer and age is rarely a prohibitive factor for a defender, particularly a centre-back. At the tender age of just 25, Van Dijk even has time on his side to take his game through the levels. Big January deals can seldom be pulled off, but United need to find one of the remaining remedies for Mourinho- defensive solidity.
Sadio Mane was one Southampton player that went to Liverpool and got away from United. Mourinho can ill afford Virgil Van Dijk to be the next one.