When he first saw Virgil van Dijk play, Neil Lennon knew he had found another special player in the elegant Dutch defender.
The Celtic manager yesterday described the player as “another Victor Wanyama” as he looked ahead to tonight’s home Premiership clash with Kilmarnock.
The memory of Van Dijk’s magnificent free-kick in Sunday’s 4-0 victory over Hibernian remains fresh in the memory and it was further evidence of the defender’s range of talents.
But Lennon is not minded to alter a defence that is homing in on a club record ten successive clean sheets in the league. Should goalkeeper Fraser Forster keep a Kilmarnock side including in-form Kris Boyd at bay tonight then he will have emulated a record first set 100 years ago.
The goalkeeper will be first to pay credit to the likes of Van Dijk for providing dogged – and at times inspirational – support. Lennon is pondering whether Van Dijk can step forward into midfield. “Just as Victor Wanyama did,” he said yesterday.
The Kenyan player was a versatile addition when he arrived from the Belgian club Beerschot AC in 2011 and could play in defence or the middle of the park, although he eventually established him as a central midfielder before he was sold to Southampton for £12 million.
Van Dijk looks similarly comfortable on the ball and as well as being more than proficient at free kicks, has shown himself to be willing to probe forward on occasion to help out the attack. “I enjoy watching him play,” said Lennon.
“The first day I watched him play I thought ‘we’ve got one here’. He hasn’t disappointed us. He has so many attributes to his game and the goal against Hibs didn’t surprise me.”
Surprisingly, Van Dijk had to be coaxed into taking the free-kick on Sunday that gave Celtic a 2-0 lead. “I see him doing it in training but he’s just not had the confidence to do it [during games],” said Lennon. “This is another string to his bow.” He is also a more than useful addition to the rostrum of free-kick specialists at the club. With Kris Commons also in fine form, Lennon imagined there will be “a bit of a debate” in future at free kicks. “We also have Stokesy [Anthony Stokes], Charlie [Mulgrew] and other options,” he added.
Lennon reflected on seeing Van Dijk for the first time in training. “He showed composure and strength,” he said. “We felt we had young, strong boys running into him and they basically bounced off him in much the same way they did with Victor Wanyama. At that point, we knew we had a specimen. But his ability and technique is excellent. He has quick feet and can move the ball into midfield by side-stepping people. He is graceful on the ball and he can head the ball – in both boxes. That is one of the first things you look for in a centre-half.”
While his qualities were quickly apparent, there was some concern when Van Dijk endured a torrid time in Kazakhastan along with central defensive partner Steven Moyoukolo when he made his full debut in the Champions League qualifier against Shakhtar Karagandy. Lennon had reluctantly agreed to sell Kelvin Wilson back to Nottingham Forest. “We thought he [Wilson] would be a big miss because he showed his qualities in the Champions League last year,” said Lennon. “But Virgil has been a more than adequate replacement. I think he can play for Holland and go to the highest level.
“He has an all-round game and I think we have won a watch,” he added. “He is worth a lot more than we paid for him.”
When it comes to the clean sheet record, Lennon is fatalistic. “If we concede one or two, we get criticised left, right and centre. But to have ten clean sheets in a row is very special,” he added. “Not many teams go through a series like that. But what I don’t want is people taking it for granted as it is a hard thing to do.”
As for the British record, set by Edwin Van der Sar after he lasted over 21 hours without conceding a goal (Forster is currently on 15 hours and 45 minutes), Lennon said. “It would be nice – it’s another record to go for.” He was sure about one thing: “As soon as we concede one, we’ll get slaughtered.”