Virgil van Dijk is the best player in the Premier League: how the Dutch defender became Liverpool's leader - ESPN

Virgil van Dijk is the best player in the Premier League: how the Dutch defender became Liverpool's leader

In his teens, Virgil van Dijk worked part time washing dishes in a small-town restaurant. Nobody at Willem II, his mid-table Dutch club, saw much future in him. He was a well-liked but occasionally difficult kid -- "a real little rat," according to his youth coach, Robby Hendriks. Willem II wasn't even planning to offer him a professional contract.

Fast-forward to 2019, and this spring, Van Dijk, 27, is expected to win both of England's Footballer of the Year awards. One is voted for by his colleagues, the other by the Football Writers' Association. If Liverpool win their first league title in 29 years, it would be in large part thanks to him. A long, gradual rise -- a mix of planning, dedication and luck -- is reaching its crescendo. But how did Van Dijk, No.4 in the ESPN FC 100, get this good?

Van Dijk's long rise began the summer he turned 17, in 2008, when he shot up 18 centimeters (7 inches) in height. Before then, Van Dijk has admitted to the BBC, he was a slow, short right-back with an unstable knee, not a player who was good enough to dominate as a central defender. The freshly minted giant -- he's now 6-foot-4 and 203 pounds -- reminded some at Willem II of another big defender who had passed through the club in the mid-1990s, Jaap Stam, but Van Dijk still couldn't break into the first team. His club thought he had "too many limitations" -- something Edwin Hermans, then coach of the reserves, later told Dutch newspaper Trouw.

Admittedly, Willem II weren't the greatest talent-spotters; a younger kid in their academy at the time, Frenkie de Jong, never quite cracked the first team, either. De Jong joined Ajax's youth ranks aged 18, and even when he returned to Willem II on loan, he made just one 20-minute appearance. (He's now waiting to join Barcelona when the transfer window opens on July 1.)

Van Dijk might have ended up being a full-time dishwasher if it weren't for the intervention of the Koeman family. Martin Koeman -- a Dutch international and father of two Dutch internationals, Erwin and Ronald -- scouted the 18-year-old for the family's ancestral club, FC Groningen. In 2010, Van Dijk headed north on a free transfer. He cycled to reserve-team practices because he couldn't yet drive. Groningen didn't let him play matches because he was overtired after a season playing for Willem II's reserves and under-18s simultaneously.

Only Van Dijk thought he was ready for Groningen's first team. Even when others didn't rate him, he always did.

Finally, on May 29, 2011, three months before his 20th birthday and after four sub appearances, he made his first professional start against ADO Den Haag. He was at fault for ADO's goal but scored twice himself. That set a rhythm for his career: He would become a pillar of each new team almost from day one.

There would be further setbacks. Most notably, aged 20, he nearly died. After days of undiagnosed medical problems, he suddenly found himself in the emergency ward of the Groningen hospital with peritonitis and kidney poisoning. He later told Voetbal International magazine: "I remember lying in that bed. The only thing I could see was tubes. My body was broken. I couldn't do anything. For the first time in my life, soccer was a side issue.

"My mother and I prayed to God and talked about possible scenarios. At one point, I had to sign papers. It was a sort of will. If I died, some of my money would go to my mother. I looked death in the eyes, and that wasn't pleasant."

Pretty soon, though, he was back on the field.

Van Dijk's teammate and housemate at Groningen, Tim Keurntjes, said that by this point, Van Dijk had become a central defender who had everything going for him: build, height and skill. It probably worked to Van Dijk's advantage that he had been short for most of his youth. If he was caught out of position as a kid, he couldn't rely on a bone-crunching tackle or a last-ditch sprint to save the situation. He had to learn soccer the traditional Dutch way: sport as a kind of dance in space in which every player has to ask himself every second, 'Am I in the right place now?' and, 'What could happen next?'"

Groningen's coach, Robert Maaskant, noted another quality: Van Dijk listened to criticism. He learned rapidly and consistently. Almost perversely for a late-blooming defender at a small club, he still believed he could reach the top; he just needed to improve his weak points. Perhaps because the level at Groningen was too easy for him, his biggest problem was concentration. In that sense, he was made for soccer's elite level, playing for teams on which the hysteria and stress forces you to focus.

Another theme in his career emerged: Every two years, he would move up a level. By 2013, he was ready for his next step. He turned down Brighton and then big money at Krasnodar in Russia because he had decided the smart career move was to join one of the big Dutch clubs. Unfortunately, none of them were interested. They all underestimated the first-rate player with a second-rate career who'd had a terrible game for Holland under-21s against Italy.

Groningen phoned Ajax's technical director, Marc Overmars, to offer him Van Dijk, reported Voetbal International magazine, but Overmars bought another young centre-back, Mike Van der Hoorn, instead. Today Van der Hoorn plays for Swansea in the Championship, and Van Dijk is competing for the Champions League and Premier League with Liverpool.

In 2013, Van Dijk joined Celtic instead, and from the start, he saw it as an intermediate step. He instantly became an unquestioned regular in an iron-tight defense, winning two straight Scottish titles and continuing to improve by the month. Still, Holland's coach Louis van Gaal didn't take him to the 2014 World Cup, instead choosing the inexperienced defenders Terence Kongolo (playing for Huddersfield, who have been relegated from the Premier League) and Bruno Martins Indi (now at second-tier Stoke).

Van Dijk doesn't blame Van Gaal. "I wasn't as far [along in my career] then as I am now," he told the Dutch Algemeen Dagblad newspaper. "The Scottish league just is below standard."

Van Gaal's scouts had shown him videos of Van Dijk letting attackers run away behind his back. Moreover, he told the Volkskrant newspaper, the young Van Dijk "didn't defend forward," meaning he didn't move into space toward the ball. The easiest thing for a big center-back is to sit back and fight out one-on-ones against a striker, but Holland's tactics (and Liverpool's now) require forward, proactive pressing. Van Dijk, who never enjoyed the luxury of top-notch youth coaching, has had to acquire that. His belated mastery of it has made him a perfect fit for Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool, perhaps the world leaders in proactive pressing.

In 2015, Martin Koeman's son Ronald brought him to Southampton. Soon after, aged 24, Van Dijk finally made his debut for Holland. (For comparison, his partner in the Dutch central defense, Matthijs de Ligt, debuted at 17.) Van Dijk served his standard two-year stint at Southampton and then, at 26, made his long-planned leap to the top, at Liverpool.

The transfer fee of £75 million made him the most expensive defender in history. He always says he never thinks much about the price -- not his problem, he believes. Still, it was a remarkable fee for a man who had cost Groningen exactly nothing nine years earlier and Celtic just £2.7 million in 2013.

In his debut at Anfield, he scored the winner against Everton in the Merseyside derby.

He feels as if everything since has gone almost automatically. VVD -- not his nickname in Holland, as it's already the acronym of the governing center-right political party -- is now an unquestioned star, yet he remains different from the multi-millionaires around him in the team. While most of them have been surrounded since adolescence by agents, sponsor reps and other hangers-on, Van Dijk remembers what it's like to be a modestly paid, ordinary person. He reached adulthood still able to walk unrecognized down the street anywhere except Groningen. He knows he might have stayed unrecognized forever.

Sometimes, watching Dutch TV at home in Liverpool, he sees former teammates play in the Dutch second division on minimum-wage contracts. His past has given him an awareness of others that is rare in top-class soccer: During the anthems before Holland vs. France last November, he gave his coat to a young girl mascot whom he'd noticed was freezing.

At 27, Van Dijk has reached the soccer player's zenith: an old head on young legs. His concentration seldom falters anymore, and the combination of his Dutch and British soccer education is paying off. Ronald Koeman, now Holland's manager, has made him captain.

Georginio Wijnaldum, Liverpool's other Dutch international, told the website: "If Virgil doesn't agree with something, you'll hear it from him. On the field, he's constantly busy with teammates, the people beside and in front of him. It's nice playing with Virgil behind me because he's always coaching. He keeps talking."

Van Dijk admits that he may talk too much, but the talking shows how he views soccer: as a test of intelligent, collective positioning. He values brain over brawn. Asked by the Algemeen Dagblad about his fellow physical-super-specimen Sergio Ramos, he replied: "I don't think Ramos is the best of this moment. Ramos is a wonderful player, but he's not my type of central defender. I try not to end up in the situations that he often gets into."

To see how Van Dijk prefers to solve problems on the pitch, watch how he single-handedly neutralized two counterattacking Tottenham players, Moussa Sissoko and Son Heung-Min, by himself in last month's encounter at Anfield. That match was a must-win for Liverpool as they chase a first Premier League title, and with little time left and the score level at 1-1, Spurs had their chance to dash the Reds' dreams at Anfield.

It's a masterpiece of decision-making: Van Dijk calculated that the biggest danger would be a shot by Son, a natural striker, so he positioned himself between the two opponents and let Sissoko run all the way into the box but all the while forcing him onto his weak left foot. The Frenchman fired well over the bar. Minutes later, Liverpool got the winner. It was a moment that might end up deciding the title, and Van Dijk didn't even have to make a tackle.

"Every day, every week, I feel I'm getting better," he said.

Van Dijk now has a quiet life: train, come home to his wife and toddler daughters, rest, give everything he has in the match, and repeat. It's a demanding existence, but then, these are his peak years -- unless it turns out there's another upward step left in him. It's all a world away from the teenage part-time dishwasher, yet that person is still part of Van Dijk, too.

"I think you have to stay normal," he told the Volkskrant. "What I am, I remain, with help from my wife. I haven't started to float. I've had to work quite hard to get where I am, but I'll never forget where I came from."