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Saturday, June 25, 2022

‘Studied carelessness’: How Virgil Van Dijk makes us think he’s even better than he is

Why his ability to maintain his composure makes the Dutch defender one of the best in the world

Virgil Van Dijk has cultivated a clear sporting persona: he is a formidably calm presence. His meteoric rise has often descended into a barrage of superficial superlatives, especially after he was named UEFA Men’s Player of the Year for 2018/19, and narrowly missed out on the Ballon d’Or to Lionel Messi. High praise for a centre-back. And yet time and again, his equanimity is emphasised over his on-field productivity. 

We need not look any further than Liverpool supporters’ chants to get an idea of the way he comes across on the field. In late 2018, just a year into his time at Liverpool, the Virgil Van Dijk chant had already become established as a hit on a par with the ode to Mo Salah and the infamous ‘Allez Allez Allez’ Champions League anthem. A playful re-working of Ewan MacColl’s ‘Dirty Old Town’, the song centres around the rhyme of ‘he’ll pass the ball calm as you like’ with ‘he’s Virgil Van Dijk’, always delivered with great affection, and hard to imagine without the characteristic Scouse fricative ‘k’. Here we have a player who’s reaching his prime, considered to be among the best in the world, whose distinguishing feature is his composure. Hardly the first quality that springs to mind for a player of his calibre.

The contrast between this chant, an on-brand tribute to the man who seemingly cannot be fazed, or even forced to break a sweat, and the fans’ response to the home-grown club legend, Steven Gerrard, demonstrates the impact Van Dijk’s on-field persona has been having. Whereas Van Dijk is seen in terms of his dual function in the team, in a somewhat essentialised manner, namely ‘defending and scoring’, Gerrard comes across as a gritty workaholic and a strong physical presence, who’ll ‘pass the ball forty yards’ and he’s ‘big and he’s fucking (pronounced fooking) hard.’ Anyone who’s watched Liverpool in the past two seasons will know that Van Dijk is very much capable of producing forty-yard passes in a Gerrardesque fashion, and he has three inches on him at 6’3”. 

It’s clear that the shift in tone stems not from their playstyle, or their physical attributes, but from the image they convey, their persona. Gerrard, a Scouser through and through, comes across as a stickler for the nitty-gritty and the unglamorous aspects of the game, never afraid to put his body on the line. That is to say, Gerrard’s chant conforms entirely to the nowadays tiresome Churchillian blood-sweat-and-tears archetype of the English club captain (think Gerrard, John Terry, Frank Lampard and Gary Neville). Van Dijk’s chant, on the other hand, seems to register a certain lack of investment in, or even detachment from, the passionate and physical aspects of the game.

But what exactly is this ‘calmness’ that keeps cropping up? I think it’s more than a complacent nonchalance. It’s a conscious strategy of disingenuousness and dissimulation. He makes it look like he’s not trying, but he very much is. It’s just that we don’t notice, as most of the exertion goes into maintaining the ‘calm as you like’ persona that serves him so well. Although I might just be an overzealous student of Italian literature who suddenly decides everyone’s a Renaissance courtier, I can’t help but notice that Van Dijk exhibits the same ‘defensive irony’ associated with the concept of sprezzatura that I toiled with for a shoddy tutorial essay. In the Oxford English Dictionary, it’s defined as a ‘studied carelessness’, and the term is mainly used nowadays to describe artistic and literary style. 

Of course, the footballing world of the 21st century hasn’t got much in common with the Renaissance court. But Castiglione, who coined the word, intended for the concept to be ‘universally’ applicable, a performative approach that must be pursued in word and deed alike: it’s not just artistic or literary. He defined sprezzatura as a performance of nonchalance that ‘conceals all art and makes whatever [one] does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.’ Sounds like Virgil to me. 

When VVD clears the ball with a slashed backheel, or pings it forty yards to put Mane or Salah through on goal at the other end of the field, we might for a moment be justified in calling him ‘imperious’, as Steve McManaman feels the need to do every five minutes in BT Sport Champions League coverage. But what is remarkable about him is that he barely ever needs to make these flashy interventions, and avoids the pretension that they entail. Most of the time, he sticks to the aspects of the game where he can maintain his sprezzatura. There’s a reason that he’s only made 22 tackles in 27 games this season, or 0.81 a game, which is only the third highest tally at Liverpool, and 72nd in the league. Tackling is the only time he looks like he’s trying. Which is precisely why he avoids it.

In summer last year, there was much debate over a statistic that seemed almost too good to be true: no one successfully dribbled past him in the 2018/19 season in either the Premier League and the Champions League. But to be honest, obsessing over whether it’s true or not is a waste of time. The YouTube videos seeking to provide video evidence for players like Manchester City’s Bernardo Silva and Leroy Sane assailing the unassailable ‘Big Virg’ are missing the point. The key thing is that it’s even remotely believable. It’s because we know he picks his battles wisely, and rarely risks being beaten, something that is crucial to his implementation of sprezzatura

In short, Van Dijk only intervenes when the situation absolutely requires it. Over-committing is disastrous for his nonchalant performance. Because his primary defensive concern seems to be that of protecting the veneer of his ‘studied carelessness’, he focuses on the comparatively passive arts of positioning and interception. In a nation where the role of a defender has traditionally been regarded as that of an enforcer who’s willing to risk life and limb for their team’s cause, Van Dijk’s ‘calm-as-you-like’ demeanour is unorthodox to say the least. However, this all guns blazing, ‘blood, sweat and tears’ approach to defending can’t hold water in an age where tackling is a dying art, attackers are getting pacier (not just in FIFA), and everyone is expected to be comfortable with the ball at their feet.

On the surface, this kind of deliberate reticence might seem counterproductive. We might even find ourselves questioning why a player with his talent isn’t straining every game to make a great deal more happen, perhaps by snuffing attacks out earlier and more actively, or getting involved more in the midfield. But this would take away from the very ‘imperiousness’ on which his defensive deterrence is founded. Castiglione went to great lengths to present sprezzatura as the route to total mastery not only of the self but also of the rules that govern the court. I think Van Dijk is looking to achieve the footballing equivalent of this dual mastery. From day one at Liverpool, he performed the role of a man at ease with himself and the environment he’s working in. And by performing unassailability, he becomes unassailable for real. With the great centre-backs of old, it seemed that their deterrence was rooted in the things you can measure: their physical presences, tackles made, aerial battles won, and so on. You knew where you stood. But Van Dijk’s approach is rooted in something that will forever remain intangible, which is what makes him such a frustrating opponent.

I’m not saying he isn’t a good player. He’s immense. Last season, he won 244 duels in the 38-game Premier League season, which amounts to over 6 a game, and his tackle success was 74%. There’s no denying the frightening efficiency of those numbers. But they can’t and won’t ever register the intangible dissembling and deterrence that’s been at the core of his success. He performed the role of ‘best defender in the world’ even before he’d proved his mettle at the highest level. Effectively, he faked it till he made it. 

However, it’s important to note that Van Dijk isn’t the first to play in this way, and he won’t be the last. A whole host of players have incorporated a touch of sprezzatura into their game over the years, although few have done so as effectively as him: highlight reels of Glen Hoddle, Clarence Seedorf and Xabi Alonso all show a spark of it to me. But it’s unsurprising that perhaps his most successful predecessor comes from the peninsula where the term originated. Andrea Pirlo, the bedrock of the Italian midfield for most of the noughties and the teens, embodied it. Seldom did the man variously called the ‘maestro’, the ‘professor’, the ‘architect’ or even Mozart strain himself to chase lost causes or to slide into unnecessarily risky tackles. What’s more, Van Dijk’s approach has become infectious in the Liverpool camp. His centre-back partner and good friend Joe Gomez, when fit, is capable of providing a similar ‘calm-as-you-like’ sprezzatura for club and country. One thing’s for sure: if Van Dijk can continue in the same vein, Liverpool have a priceless asset. A player who is more than capable of inflating his own value by aggrandizing himself beyond some already more-than-impressive statistical foundations, and with the leadership skills to pass on the tricks of his trade.

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