"I always thought: 'Come on, yes, he's a big, tall guy, a good centre-half, but there must be a way…' – and, actually, it never really happened!"
Peter Krawietz is remembering, with a chuckle, the challenges Virgil van Dijk – who became a Liverpool player on this day five years ago – posed as an opponent.
“We faced Virgil when he was playing for Southampton and it was quite interesting!” the assistant manager tells Liverpoolfc.com.
“When I tried to analyse Southampton and how to beat their last line I always thought: ‘Come on, yes, he’s a big, tall guy, a good centre-half, but there must be a way to beat them and to outplay’ – and, actually, it never really happened!
“When you hear that there is a good centre-half then of course you start looking and the longer we watched and analysed, we were pretty convinced. We felt it in the games against Southampton as well, how good he is and how strong and how quick.
“So, we were ready and we knew: ‘OK, this should be the one, our choice, our first choice.’ We were then really happy when it happened on January 1, 2018.
“If I’m right, his first match was the cup game against Everton and that story is history. He scored a late winner with a header and there we felt already: ‘OK, it could be a good story coming up.’”
A good story indeed.
Two hundred and four appearances, 145 wins, six major trophies, a litany of individual honours: Van Dijk’s Liverpool career has been – and continues to be – a resounding success.
Krawietz feels the Netherlands captain’s impact cannot only be measured numerically, however. His attributes enabled Jürgen Klopp and his coaches to accelerate the development of a system upon which the Reds’ recent glories have been based.
“In the years before, we figured out our way to play and we had the high defensive line already,” Krawietz notes.
“We had strong centre-halves and were already on a high level but we were searching for a way to improve further – and for that, it’s clear that you need the best players you can get. We saw that Virgil can be the one.
“He has a mixture of skills and naturally-given talents. He is unbelievably tall but at the same time he is unbelievably quick, which is a pretty rare combination. His way of understanding defending, giving security to all the guys in front of him and around him, is just outstanding and this is what we saw.
“Everyone knows we want to play a high line, we want to press, we want to defend forward and you can only do this if your guys in the last line are really, really, really strong, and this is what fits so well.
“On top of that, we want to play football and be creative and Virgil is also a brilliant football player. His passing skills – even if it’s a short pass to the centre or to the outside, or if he’s stepping in and dribbling into free spaces, and of course everybody knows his long passes as well, the big diagonal balls – are a proper weapon for us.
“But to use all of this you need a certain tactical understanding and intelligence, and this is what he has as well.
“There is never a guarantee, of course, when you make a signing, but we were pretty sure that this would be a good signing and we recognised pretty quickly that it is a perfect fit for him and for us as well.”
Captain of his country and voted as Liverpool’s third in line by his teammates, Van Dijk is a leader whose influence extends beyond the field of play.
“He is a great character, a strong person, just an excellent teammate for the guys around him,” Krawietz continues.
“It’s all about the team in football and the way you act and interact with your teammates, the way you speak to them, the way you are giving confidence to your team. With Virgil, this is something natural you expect from him.
“He is always positive with his teammates and makes them stronger around him and they support him as well.
“So, all this together is nearly a perfect package.”
Set-pieces fall under Krawietz’s remit, with the assistant manager leading Liverpool’s work in this area at the AXA Training Centre.
Van Dijk’s prowess in both penalty areas has, he admits, made this aspect of his role a little easier.
“In defending set-pieces it’s all about good organisation and then your body strength and all that, but you have to understand how we want to do it and of course he is a leader there as well. Again, he is protecting all of the others, or most of them,” Krawietz explains.
“In attacking set-pieces it’s not only about being tall. It’s about timing, understanding and reading the situation, reading the crosses, being flexible in a certain way and this is what, of course, we can do, especially if we have another tall centre-half on the pitch, if it’s Ibou or Joel or Joe.
“This kind of intelligence and tactical understanding – when is the ball for me and when do I step away and make space for a teammate who can then use this gap? – is a process of nearly daily training. It’s what we do and like this the team, in combination with a good delivery, can then be strong.
“Then of course Virg is one of our main targets in these situations and his record of making the first touch in the box, which is the most difficult one but the most important one as well, is very good.
“But this is not the only part. There is always then the second phase as well: it’s about setting blocks and stuff like that and then you can be as a team properly successful.
“But understanding ideas is one thing, but a player has to be convinced as well. That’s the most important part and Virg is one who is always thinking about the best solution for the team, the best solution for him, the best solution for each situation.
“You have to find a common way to do it: thinking together, working together, talking together. This is what it is all about. You put in different ideas and then you make a decision, and this is what Virg does and has delivered now for exactly five years.”
In Krawietz’s eyes, Van Dijk has honed an enviable all-round skillset to the point of establishing himself as the world’s best in his position.
“This was a process of adaptation, of course. I think for him the move here was a big step and a proper decision to make,” he says.
“He wanted to join one of the biggest clubs in order to win trophies, in order to make the next steps, which he did. He decided to join Liverpool which was, for both sides, obviously a pretty good decision!
“This process and becoming successful and staying successful, and playing on such a high level now for five years at Liverpool and for sure before at Southampton, this is what you call quality in the end.
“I believe for him it was a step to come to one of the biggest clubs, to play in every competition, to play so many games. I think Virgil is one of the players with the most minutes during one season when he was not injured.
“So, playing every game, playing every three days, overcoming difficult situations which you feel on a day when your energy level is not the highest, then to be and to stay strong and try to make the job for your team, this is what he does pretty well.
“This is what makes him as strong as the best centre-half in the world.”
Klopp’s team have added the Premier League, Champions League, FIFA Club World Cup, Emirates FA Cup, Carabao Cup and UEFA Super Cup to the club’s trophy cabinet.
When asked to sum up Van Dijk’s contribution to those successes, Krawietz concludes: “Being a strong team, being a successful team, needs to be like a puzzle which has to fit.
“The whole picture has to be clear and stable and for sure, he is one of our main puzzle pieces, a pretty big one in the centre. He is making this puzzle into a wonderful, beautiful picture and if you want to take this part out of it, it would be no puzzle anymore.
“But in the end, only one piece of the puzzle doesn’t make the picture. So, it fits pretty well with all the other strong characters we have and our teamwork. It wouldn’t work out if you just had one strong centre-half and the others were not good.
“If we wouldn’t have an outstanding, fantastic goalkeeper it would be difficult as well. So, this is what I want to say: this whole picture makes it so strong and without him, for sure, one big piece would be missing.
“We are really happy that he is in the club and that he feels fine, that he feels well with his teammates. I hope it stays that way for many more years.
“Like I said, you never know exactly what is going to happen when you sign a player but for sure you have an idea of what would make us really better and this is what we were hoping the moment he came in.
“I believe this promise, this hope, has been fulfilled. It’s just been a good – a really good – story so far and hopefully there are a few more highlights to come.”