There were plenty of occasions last season when Manchester City supporters, exasperated by their team’s defensive problems and ruing the departure of Vincent Kompany and the loss of Aymeric Laporte to a long-term injury, must have looked longingly at Virgil van Dijk.
The Liverpool centre-back’s impact on Merseyside has been hard to overstate, the Dutchman forming the bedrock of the club’s march to a first domestic championship for 30 years, 12 months after helping steer them to European Cup glory.
Many of Van Dijk’s leadership qualities were in evidence in a video the Dutch national side posted of their captain on their social media feeds after a 1-0 win over Poland earlier this month and, while there was an inevitable rush among Liverpool fans to acclaim arguably the world’s best defender on the back of it, they were not the only interested observers.
Nathan Ake was operating at left back for Holland that night in Amsterdam but, while it may have afforded him an up, close and personal view of the towering figure to his immediate right, it did not prevent the defender from later sitting down on his own to watch that 59-second clip of Van Dijk constantly marshalling, organising, cajoling and communicating.
Having joined City from Bournemouth in a £41 million deal last month, Ake will hope to be part of a side that wrests the title away from Liverpool, a sea change from the relegation battle he fought and ultimately lost with his former club last season. Yet, as he talks about his ambitions and challenges ahead of a potential debut away to Wolves on Monday night, it is clear that Van Dijk has become a valuable reference point for a man Pep Guardiola hopes will help to ease City’s defensive frailties.
“It’s more seeing it [from him than speaking to him about it],” Ake says of Van Dijk’s leadership. “Like with that clip the national team put out on Instagram with the way he was communicating. It’s those kind of things I’m trying to pick up and learn from.
“The way he behaves on the pitch as a leader, always talking, always organising the line, helping the other people in front of him, I’ve picked up those kinds of things over the year and try to implement them in my own game and get that leadership.
“It’s not easy. In the last year especially, I tried to step it up at Bournemouth more on the pitch, and sometimes off it - things like organising the team, trying to pick them up in certain situations when the team wasn’t playing well, trying to give information, even in training sessions to get the team going. That is what Virgil does all the time, and that is what I have been trying to learn. I think I have got better over the last year. I still have things to improve but I’m sure I can do that.”