MORE than a month has passed since the bubble of optimism growing over Liverpool’s summer ambition was burst in an instant.
Just as it seemed the much-mentioned “statement of intent” was being readied with Virgil van Dijk set to become the world’s most expensive defender, a statement of a different kind floored fans high on hope.
It was only 60 words but with “regret”, “apologise” and crucially “we have ended any interest in the player” among them, it appeared unequivocal; the white flag waved, the towel thrown in, The Reds tapping out. Announce van Dijk? Absolutely no chance.
READ: Gareth Roberts on the Virgil van Dijk debacle and the question of competence in the transfer market
That someone, somewhere, sometime got something wrong remains a fair assessment. When stealth, steadiness and quiet confidence were the order of the day, someone donned the size nines, switched all the lights on and started screaming through a megaphone.
While one of the key rules of transfers appears to that there are really no rules – or certainly none the different protagonists really care about enough to adhere to – the dot joining still suggests Liverpool leapt over the line of acceptable conduct; whether that was a leak, a strategy or a mistake.
Now though, with a month or more of water under the bridge, how is that website statement on the situation around van Dijk looking?
Reports in the Sunday tabs, especially during silly season, should always be taken with a vat of salt poured over them. But the suggestions at the weekend that van Dijk has made it clear to Southampton that he only wants to join Liverpool were food for thought.
When Southampton made the drastic step of reporting Liverpool to the FA for alleged “tapping up” last month, reports on the south coast talked of the club “taking control” of the situation.
It was an interesting line.
Having returned to the Southampton over and over again in recent years, it’s clear Liverpool is not going to be a popular club with Saints fans. When a club comes knocking for your team’s top talent think about how it feels. John Henry’s “What do you think they’re smoking…” stance regarding Arsenal’s approach for Luis Suarez was greeted with clenched fists and defiant delight by Liverpudlians. You can bet Southampton’s actions regarding van Dijk prompted a similar response from the St Mary’s faithful. Their boys gave us one hell of a beating.
What do you think they're smoking over there at Emirates?
— John W. Henry (@John_W_Henry) July 24, 2013
But now the dust has settled, now the tapping up investigation has conveniently disappeared as quickly as it was threatened, what have Southampton been left with?
Ignoring the whos, wheres, whys and hows, it’s pretty clear the original claims around van Dijk were well sourced and accurate. Hence Southampton’s anger at them appearing in the public domain before negotiations had even begun.
Ultimately though, the boardroom behaviour is likely to have changed little in the player’s mind. The Dutchman will likely remain an admirer of Jürgen Klopp, his plans, his approach and his club, Liverpool.
Equally, Klopp, who had identified the defender as his top target, is unlikely to have had a change of heart regarding the 26-year-old’s abilities to improve a defence perceived to be the Reds’ weak spot.
So what happens between now and the fading hours of August 31 when Jim White’s day-glo tie is flung to the bedroom floor? Will would-be-manager and player-to-be continue to make eyes at each other across the room? Or will one or the other neck that drink and pop the question?
It’s back to the idea of control. Southampton’s board may well have taken control in their eyes. But what new manager Mauricio Pellegrino has taken control of is a key player that wants out – one potentially not tuned in mentally, one who could conceivably upset the team dynamic. Would he rather have the money to spend?
It’s been all quiet at the Liverpool end, understandably so. But while no-one would expect further showings of hands on van Dijk perhaps more telling is the lack of links to viable alternatives in his position.
If Klopp had put van Dijk top of his shopping list and now felt he was out of reach, why have there been no credible links to the next man down on that list? If he’s identified a dominant centre-half as key to his plans – and was prepared to countenance a world-record fee for a player in that position – isn’t it fair to suggest he wouldn’t be sitting on his hands for a month knowing there is no way it can be revived?
— The Anfield Wrap (@TheAnfieldWrap) June 21, 2017
Van Dijk pushing for a move could change the dynamic. A transfer request paints another picture. A bid from another club could change the dynamic, too.
All of a sudden the stalemate is forgotten and Liverpool may decide they don’t have to “respect Southampton’s decision”. Meanwhile, Southampton can present clear evidence they have an unhappy player on their books on one hand and a record fee being offered on the other.
They get to argue they played hardball. And they get to argue they ultimately made a common sense decision.
Message controlled. Evil Liverpool paying over the odds after unsettling the player. Sensible Southampton cashing in on a problem child to boost the squad and back the manager.
Saints’ position could also soften with a ready-made replacement recruited.
The transfer market is fluid and valuations can quickly shift. If a selling club can see the glow of a £60-70million fee in Southampton’s safe the likelihood is a price of a player post any van Dijk deal would dwarf the fee being asked for now.
Perhaps the pleas for patience aren’t just the smokescreen many claim. Perhaps the deal can still happen. Perhaps everyone can emerge from this mess smelling a little bit rosier by the time the window pain is over.
Do Liverpool intend to make a statement? We’ll have to wait and see. And that’s the hardest part.
To hear discussion around Liverpool’s targets and more subscribe to The Anfield Wrap. If you want a taster of what we do listen to our FREE show ‘Transfers Unwrapped’ where we pulled back the curtain to see what goes into transfers. A subscription also gives you access to our podcast archive – here are some of the highlights so far