As the bookmakers’ favourite for the Ballon d’Or 2019, Virgil van Dijk is something of an exception.
Since the prestigious award was introduced by France Football magazine in 1956, only two defenders – the mighty Franz Beckenbauer (twice) and fellow World Cup winning captain Fabio Cannavaro – have received it to date.
More have been shortlisted down the years and many were arguably far greater players than Van Dijk. Think Billy Wright, Giacinto Facchetti, Bobby Moore, Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini and Roberto Carlos.
Last year the decade-long duopoly of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi trading the Ballon d’Or ended when Luka Modric got the nod.
This always felt like a reward given over a highly consistent career, rather than the Croatian playmaker being particularly outstanding in 2018.
It also suggested, however, that those voting for the gong were growing tired of the race containing essentially just two men – albeit incredible, once in a generation talents for their respective countries.
Whether the mood has changed such that Van Dijk can become just the third defender to get the Ballon d’Or in history remains to be seen.
What’s beyond doubt is that both the form of his club Liverpool and national team, the Netherlands, has improved of late.
You can see the difference he’s made at Anfield with a sixth European Cup in the trophy cabinet. Before Van Dijk joined Jurgen Klopp’s Merseyside outfit, they were the nearly men.
Beaten in the 2016 League Cup and Europa League finals, then the 2018 Champions League final just a few months after his arrival, Liverpool have since avenged those defeats.
Van Dijk was the man of the match as they beat fellow Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur to become kings of Europe again.
Champions League win an obvious plus
Detractors will say he had an easy job marking a ring-rusty Harry Kane on that occasion, but the Premier League goals table doesn’t lie.
Liverpool conceded just 22 goals in the course of their entire league campaign last term. The meanest defence in English football was the joint-third best in Premier League history.
Yet Van Dijk’s defensive displays weren’t enough to bring the title everyone at Anfield craves.
Spare a thought for Arsenal fans though, who saw their side concede just 17 goals in the 1998-99 campaign and also miss out on major honours.
That was the famous year when Manchester United did the treble. Manchester City completed their own domestic equivalent this past term which extended Liverpool’s long and agonising wait for a Premier League triumph.
Chelsea under Jose Mourinho for the first couple of years in his first stint at Stamford Bridge were just as mean as Van Dijk and the Reds rearguard he marshals.
The Londoners let in just 15 goals – a record low in the Premier League era – in 2004-05, then 22 the following campaign.
Putting Liverpool’s achievements into further perspective, the lauded Invincibles vintage at Arsenal in 2003-04 conceded 26 goals. That’s four more.
Thierry Henry, who was doing the business up the other end, finished runner-up in the Ballon d’Or of 2003 to Pavel Nedved.
Is that a precedent that suggests Van Dijk may be overlooked when the final shortlist is known and votes are cast? Not necessarily.
The key ingredient the majority of recent Ballon d’Or winners have in common is Champions League success.
There were exceptions of course. Messi scored 91 goals for club and country in 2012, for instance. It’s what a player does week in week out rather than international duty that counts for most.
Key component of Dutch revival
It may be just as well in this case for Van Dijk has found the Dutch national side in something of a slump.
The Netherlands were World Cup semi-finalists in Brazil under Louis van Gaal, yet failed to qualify for Euro 2016 or the 2018 World Cup.
Their recent revival with Van Dijk’s old Southampton manager Ronald Koeman at the helm and run to the inaugural Nations League final was built on his stout defending and the exuberant crop of Ajax youngsters.
It’s no accident both Klopp and Koeman both have him as captain though. Van Dijk has emerged as a leader for both Liverpool and the Dutch.
Should he have sole credit for transforming the former defensively? Reds goalkeeper Alisson has – forgive the pun – had a hand in that as well.
Alisson brings something extra to the table Van Dijk lacks – international success. Brazil ended their 15-year wait for a major trophy with Copa America success on home soil during the summer.
Part of a very seasoned defence containing the likes of Dani Alves, Miranda and Thiago Silva, Alisson and the unit in front of him conceded just one goal in the whole tournament.
This follows a fine season in which he kept 21 Premier League clean sheets and six more in Europe.
Although Alisson ticks plenty of boxes as a contender for the Ballon d’Or 2019, goalies are even less recognised than defenders.
Soviet stopper Lev Yashin is the only keeper to receive it, with just Gianluigi Buffon and Manuel Neuer making the shortlist since.
It’s unusual for those outside of playmakers and forwards, then. Can Van Dijk buck the trend?
Previous winners don’t make strong case for Ballon d’Or 2019
Messi and Ronaldo don’t appeal for once because both had below par seasons by exalted standards.
Barcelona won just one trophy, La Liga, bottling it against Liverpool in the Champions League semis and losing the Copa del Rey final to Valencia.
Messi scored 51 goals for Barca this past season, earning the Pichichi trophy for La Liga’s leading goalscorer for the sixth time.
Some international success with Argentina may have helped, but it continues to elude him. Ronaldo, meanwhile, fired Juventus to yet another Scudetto in his first season in Serie A.
He didn’t top the goal charts, however, losing out to veteran striker Fabio Quagliarella. Portugal did win the Nations League final on home soil though.
Finishing fourth in this individual table and only netting 28 goals across all competitions at club level is way below what Ronaldo did at Real Madrid.
He’s 34 now, but needed time to acclimatise to Italian football. Any football team in the world would of course snap your hand if you offered them Messi or Ronaldo.
The question now is have they both peaked and are they improving the clubs they play for? Both Barca and Juve are in need of renewal in certain areas.
Van Dijk, meanwhile, is entering his prime. He has improved Liverpool and is a rare thing in football – a player capable of justifying his price tag.
If the 30-year wait for a league title ends in 2020, then that £75,000,000 paid to Southampton will certainly be money well spent. The Ballon d’Or 2019 might just be coming to Merseyside.
Anfield icon Kenny Dalglish only ever finished second in the vote and modern greats Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres third. Van Dijk is in pole position to emulate Michael Owen and put defending back on the map.