“Virgil has to improve; sometimes he is too laid back... that has to change.”
Those were the words of Ronald Koeman, the former Everton and current Netherlands national coach, speaking about Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk.
Within minutes of his team’s 2-1 defeat to France in the UEFA Nations League, Koeman had told the Reds’ record signing what he thought of his performance, suggesting that his elite strength and power means he sometimes feels he can afford to be a little laid-back, safe in the knowledge he can still win his battle.
Koeman, though, urged him not to switch off at all if he wants to be referred to as world-class and reach the heights he is undoubtedly capable of, and has arguably already reached several times.
When Van Dijk has been caught out – very rarely – it has often come through him being too cool or carefree, with Joe Gomez bailing him out on a couple of occasions in the early weeks of the season.
The perceived criticism of the Dutch defender was met with some surprise given how well he has generally performed for Liverpool since making the £75 million move from Southampton ten months ago.
The Reds have not conceded a goal at Anfield in the Premier League since West Ham United’s Michail Antonio netted a consolation in a 4-1 victory back in February, and have only conceded three times in the league this season, a joint league-best with Manchester City, who to date have faced inferior opponents.
That is partly down to the impressive Alisson Becker, but he only arrived from AS Roma in the summer; Gomez and Dejan Lovren who have been alongside the Dutchman should take some credit too, but Van Dijk is the only constant at the heart of the defence.
He has been imperious for the Reds so far, a £75 million bargain – but Koeman was right to speak out now precisely because of Van Dijk’s good form and high-level performances.
Calling out players when they are doing well is simply a tactic employed to coax an extra one per cent out of them – at the elite level which Van Dijk finds himself in, there is little more to squeeze.
Van Dijk is not someone who needs much coaching and is well-versed in Liverpool's system now, but a little nudge now and again to keep him focused, concentrated and on his toes is no bad thing.
He does not need to improve massively or make revolutionary changes to his game; Koeman was not calling for that in his comments, despite some knee-jerk reactions suggesting he might have been.
This was not a vicious attack or a scathing criticism associated with Jose Mourinho and his Manchester United players, but rather a gentle reminder of his responsibilities to one of his most trusted and valued players.
In any case, if anyone knows about how to be a world-class central defender it’s Ronald Koeman – if Van Dijk can improve even the most minute detail of his game with a soft, well-meaning prod from his international manager, then both Liverpool and the Netherlands will benefit.