They might not be one of Dutch football’s traditional powerhouses, but Willem II certainly know how to develop players.
Marc Overmars played there once upon a time. Jaap Stam too. Frenkie De Jong made his professional debut there as a 17-year-old, while Mousa Dembele spent a season with the Superkruiken as a fleet-footed teenager.
Virgil van Dijk was on the club’s books as a youngster, while another Liverpool defensive hero, Sami Hyypia, spent four years in Tilburg before moving to Merseyside in the late-1990s.
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And then there is the Reds’ latest signing, Kostas Tsimikas.
It was at Willem II that the Greece international, whose £11.75million ($15m) switch to Anfield from Olympiacos was confirmed earlier this month, first came to Liverpool’s attention.
Tsimikas spent the 2017-18 campaign on loan with the Eredivisie club, making 33 appearances in total.
His performances were noted by Liverpool’s scouting team, who were monitoring the progress of their own loanee, Spanish midfielder Pedro Chirivella. He was raw, for sure, but he was all-action, a threat from left-back and an improving defensive presence.
“You could see from day one that he had a lot of talent, especially going forward,” Chirivella, now at Ligue 1 club Nantes, tells Goal.
“For a midfielder, he made it easy for me because he was always an outlet.
“But as the season went on, he got better and better defensively, he competed much better. For me, he was one of the best full-backs in Holland that year.”
The statistics back that point up. Tsimikas finished the campaign having made more tackles and completed more dribbles than any other defender in the league.
Chirivella recalls a goal, an overhead kick against Utrecht, and a star performance as Willem won 5-0 against a PSV side containing the likes of Steven Bergwijn, Marco van Ginkel and Luuk De Jong.
“He was fantastic,” he remembers. “The harder the game was, the better he performed. He loved the big games.”
Off the pitch, Chirivella and Tsimikas became friends. They remain so to this day.
“He loves a coffee, as I do!” laughs Chirivella. “Maybe that’s why we became friends!
“We were in similar situations. We both came from big clubs on loan to get minutes and to get better. We were a similar age and from day one we just clicked.
"We would spend a lot of time together. I remember he would ask me questions about Liverpool, about the gaffer, about the players. So I always knew he was a big admirer of the club.”
Tsimikas returned to Olympiacos in the summer of 2018 where, under new coach Pedro Martins, he would establish himself as a regular with the Greek champions.
That August, Liverpool watched him in a Europa League qualifier against Burnley at Turf Moor and were impressed by the way in which he won his battle against Aaron Lennon, the former England winger. Behind the scenes, detailed background checks were started, while contact was made with the player’s agents.
He started 13 league games in 2018-19, but it was in the following season that Tsimikas really came to the fore. His performances, particularly in Europe, were of a consistently high standard, and by January 2020 he was high on the list of Michael Edwards, the Reds’ sporting director.
Tsimikas impressed against Lucas Moura of Tottenham in the Champions League and Nicolas Pepe of Arsenal in the Europa League. When Olympiacos travelled to Wolves earlier this month, he shut down Adama Traore in impressive fashion too.
“A normal performance for Kostas!” coach Pedro Martins told Goal earlier this week.
Nice made an approach in January, as did Napoli, but Olympiacos stood firm until Liverpool, keen for someone to compete with and deputise for Andy Robertson, came knocking.
The Reds had looked at alternatives. A £10m ($13m) bid for Jamal Lewis, the Norwich City youngster, was rejected, with Edwards swiftly deciding that the Canaries’ £20m+ asking price was too high, despite Liverpool’s admiration for the player and Lewis’ own desire to make the move.
Another Premier League option, Bournemouth’s Lloyd Kelly, was dismissed due to the conduct of his representatives the previous summer when the Reds had tried to sign him from Bristol City, while Sergio Reguilon, on loan at Sevilla from Real Madrid and valued at around £18m ($24m), was also considered.
In the end, though, Tsimikas was the deal which made most sense and, despite late interest from both Leicester City and Sevilla, negotiations were concluded swiftly earlier this month.
He signed a five-year deal at Anfield, has already joined up with his new team-mates at Liverpool’s pre-season training camp in Austria, and will wear the No.21 shirt.
His debut could come in next weekend’s Community Shield against Arsenal at Wembley, and Chirivella cannot wait to see his friend in action.
“In Holland we would talk a lot,” he recalls. “He had a strange situation at Olympiacos and we would discuss it.
“I remember telling him just to keep going, that he had all the attributes to be at the top.
“Then after a fantastic season in Holland he goes back to Olympiacos, he’s a different player for them, plays 80-something games and now the best club in the world comes for him. He’s achieving what I thought he could. I’m so happy for him.”
So what can Liverpool fans expect from their new signing?
“He’s a very modern full-back,” Chirivella adds. “He can do everything.
“He’s very offensive and very aggressive going forward. He likes to give goals and assists, which makes him a perfect player for Liverpool, but he’s also a fighter, with a great mentality to defend and to do the best for the team.
“He and Robbo are similar. They both like to get forward. That’s their main attribute, I would say. They will complement each other.
“Obviously Robbo has done everything in the last few years. He’s a fantastic, fantastic player, but I think Kostas will be pushing him to be even better.
“And when Kostas gets his chances to play, I think he will be a very good option as well.”