The list contained four names. Four players above all others. Four defenders to make the difference for a team with big ambitions.
Liverpool’s recruitment team, led by sporting director Michael Edwards, had been searching for a centre-back for some time. They were ready to commit big money to give Jurgen Klopp a leader around which to build his backline.
“Whatever it takes,” was the message.
By the spring of 2017, they were in a position to move. Hundreds and hundreds of games had been taken in, agents had been sounded out, background checks completed. Detailed reports on dozens of targets had been filed and filtered.
Edwards and his team were left with two lists, A and B. On the B-list were young players deemed to have the potential to develop into top-class talents in the next two or three years. Names such as Manuel Akanji, Eder Militao and Jamaal Lascelles were considered for this.
The A-list was different, containing those who it was felt could make an immediate impact on Klopp’s team, who could break up the Joel Matip-Dejan Lovren partnership and take Liverpool to the next level. The “slam dunks”, Klopp called them.
Jerome Boateng was on that list. The Bayern Munich man had been coveted by Jose Mourinho at Manchester United the previous summer, and is a player Klopp had admired from his Bundesliga days. At 28, though, he was the oldest of the A-list candidates, and a player with a history of missing games through injury.
Aymeric Laporte was another who was seriously considered. He has since become a key figure for Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, but Liverpool too looked closely at the Frenchman.
City’s long-standing interest, plus the fact he was at Athletic Club – who demand players’ release clauses are met in full and in one payment – were seen as significant obstacles, however.
It was Virgil van Dijk – and this is no case of revisionism on the Reds’ part – who was always deemed the No.1 target when it came to that new centre-back. Klopp had watched the Dutchman snuff out his team in both legs of the League Cup semi-final in January 2017 and identified him as a potential world-class talent. “He’s the one,” he told his staff.
The other? Well, he’ll be in opposition when Liverpool begin the defence of their Champions League crown in Naples this week.
Kalidou Koulibaly made a big impression when he visited Anfield last season. Though he was on the losing side, and though it was he who was skinned by Mohamed Salah for the game’s decisive goal, the Napoli man was the best centre-back the Reds came up against during their European Cup-winning campaign. “So good, so strong, he’s got everything,” said one member of the Reds’ coaching staff after his side’s crucial 1-0 victory.
Koulibaly had impressed in the reverse fixture too, dominating Salah, Roberto Firmino and Co. as Napoli won 1-0 at San Paolo. Pacy, powerful and willing to pass and to carry the ball from the back, the Senegal international stood out a mile that night.
His manager, Carlo Ancelotti, has stated that Koulibaly is the best centre-back in the world. “He belongs to the class of [Paolo] Maldini, [Lilian] Thuram, Thiago Silva,” said the veteran coach back in March. A few weeks later, Ancelotti declared that “he is worth €150m.” United, predictably, have been heavily linked with a move for the 28-year-old, who joined Napoli from Genk in 2014.
Liverpool, too, would have moved had their pursuit of Van Dijk failed. The Reds worked hard to smooth over relations with Southampton after annoying the south coast club in the summer of 2017 with their public coveting. Had it not been for the work of Edwards and Mike Gordon, the president of Fenway Sports Group, in re-establishing lines of communication, then Koulibaly would have been back on their radar that January. As it was, they paid £75m to land Van Dijk.
Despite an indifferent start to the new Serie A season – he was criticised for his performance at Juventus last month, scoring a crucial own goal in his side’s 4-3 defeat – faith in Koulibaly at Napoli remains strong.
“We know that he is one of the strongest defenders in the world,” says former team-mate Raul Albiol. “He must stay calm and we should let him work.” Koulibaly was back on song on Saturday evening as the Partenopei beat Sampdoria at San Paolo.
As for Liverpool, they will harbour few regrets. They were made to wait for their first-choice target, of course, but Van Dijk’s impact since his arrival on Merseyside has been remarkable.
He’s already a Champions League winner and the PFA Player of the Year, and last month he was named Defender of the Season and Men’s Player of the Year by UEFA. He’s strong favourite for the Ballon d’Or, too. Klopp says he’s the best in the world, while Vincent Kompany has suggested he might be the best defender in Premier League history. High praise, indeed.
His start to the season, and Liverpool’s, would suggest there has been no drop in standards, that there is no less hunger within Klopp’s squad. They want to re-assert their status as Europe’s top club.
Finding a way past Koulibaly and Co. would be a good place to start.