Liverpool are on the board.
Sepp van den Berg is the Reds’ first signing of the summer transfer window, the 17-year-old having sealed his £1.3million (€1.5m) switch from PEC Zwolle.
The prospect of a teenage Dutch centre-back arriving at Anfield would have excited supporters hoping to see their club invest heavily after establishing themselves as champions of Europe. Many, though, would have hoped for Matthijs de Ligt, the much-coveted Ajax captain, rather than a relative unknown from one of the Eredivisie’s lesser lights.
Regardless, Liverpool are enthused by the arrival of van den Berg, believing they have pulled off a coup in persuading the youngster to ignore interest from elsewhere in order to join Jurgen Klopp’s squad.
Van den Berg was a wanted man. Sampdoria bid £1.8m ($2.2m) for him in January, while this summer he was chased by both Ajax and PSV Eindhoven as well as German champions Bayern Munich.
All would have made strong pitches to the teenager and his representatives. Ajax and PSV are clubs with a rich history of promoting and developing talented footballers. Van den Berg already has 22 Eredivisie appearances under his belt, and would have backed himself to get decent minutes at either of Dutch football’s traditional powerhouses. Both Ajax and PSV will need to rejig their defence this summer.
Bayern’s offer, too, would have been tempting. The Bundesliga’s reputation as a place where young players can shine is growing, and the Bavarians have as much draw as any club in terms of tradition, facilities and chances of silverware.
Van den Berg chose Liverpool, though. The work of sporting director Michael Edwards, head of recruitment Dave Fallows and, in particular, chief scout Barry Hunter was key, both in identifying the player as somebody with the potential to play first-team football at Anfield, and then in convincing him that Merseyside was the place to be. They pressed home the idea that there is a genuine pathway for young players under Klopp, who is not the type of manager to stockpile players. The Reds, he was told, only sign those they believe have the potential to play for their first team.
"I think this is the best place for me to grow and hopefully play a lot of games here," Van den Berg said upon signing. "It is, for me, the biggest club in the world."
He also discussed the influence of both Klopp and, naturally, fellow Dutchman Virgil van Dijk. "For me he is the best defender in the world right now, so I can learn a lot from him," he added.
Liverpool see similarities between van den Berg and Joe Gomez, who was bought from Charlton as an 18-year-old in 2015. The players share an agent, and reports from the Netherlands suggest they share plenty of characteristics too. Like Gomez, van den Berg is said to be mature beyond his years, physically precocious – he already stands at 6ft 3in - and extremely comfortable in possession for a young defender. His coach at Zwolle, from December to May, was Jaap Stam, one of the best centre-backs in the world while at PSV, Manchester United, Lazio and Milan.
The adaptation process should be fine. Van den Berg already speaks perfect English, and Liverpool plan to involve him in and around the first-team during pre-season. He can expect to be on the club’s tour of the USA next month, for example, even if he is likely to start the campaign proper with the Reds’ under-23 side.
Gomez, of course, established himself swiftly as a senior player four years ago, breaking straight into Brendan Rodgers’ side as a left-back. That, though, was a different Liverpool, a less settled team with lower expectations. Instead, Reds chiefs expect van den Berg to follow in the footsteps of another Dutchman, Ki-Jana Hoever, by being part of the ‘development group’, splitting his time between Melwood and the Academy in Kirkby.
"Longer-term, I hope I can play as much as possible here for the club," van den Berg said. "Short-term, [my target is] to be with the first team, develop myself, grow into the team and see how it goes. Long-term, I really want to be a legend here."
Hoever, of course, has already made a senior appearance, and he and van den Berg could easily have been team-mates at this summer’s European U17 Championships in Ireland, which the Netherlands won. Van den Berg, though, was born 11 days too early to be eligible. He is already a fixture in the Dutch under-19 squad, however.
And so he becomes the first signing of what threatens to be a rather low-key summer at Anfield. The noises from the club suggest that there will be few, if any, big-money arrivals, despite regular links with a host of players. Not necessarily what fans will want to hear, but the messages from within are at least consistent. The plan is to target younger players, and to encourage the development of those already established at the club.
Van den Berg, then, fits the bill. It will be interesting to see just how quickly the towering youngster can make his presence felt at Anfield.
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