Claude Puel hailed Southampton’s centre-backs’ form this season but reserved special praise for Virgil van Dijk, whom he believes can become one of the world’s best defenders.
Despite losing Ronald Koeman to Everton in the close-season, Southampton have started the season brightly under Puel as they sit ninth after 10 Premier League games and beat Inter on Thursday to keep up their quest for Europa League progression.
Saints’ defensive sturdiness has been a major contributor on both fronts, with only Tottenham, Everton, Manchester City and Chelsea conceding fewer than their 10 in the Premier League.
And Puel was eager to heap praise on his defenders, particularly Van Dijk, who scored in the 2-1 defeat of Inter.
“I think Virgil has all of the qualities to become one of the best defenders in the world – no problem,” he told a media conference.
“Sometimes [at the start of the season] he wasn’t concentrated. I also think the [way the team] play is different to last year because he could defend in a deep defence, but this year he sometimes has to defend with 50, 60 metres behind him [between him and the goal].
“For Maya [Yoshida] and Jose [Fonte] it is the same. It’s new and difficult because it’s hard to defend like that and leave space behind you, but it’s important for me because when you play against a good team or one with a striker who is very fast it is important to be able to anticipate the opponent.
“Virgil is technical, has improved tactically and he is fantastic. He must continue to work and progress.
“They [Van Dijk and Fonte] like to play together, but we saw also like against Inter we are lucky because we have three potential players in centre-back [Yoshida played] and that’s fantastic.
“They all can play at a very high level. I think Maya has taken lots of confidence from his performances, and has shown his qualities.”
Southampton travel to Hull City on Sunday, as they look to go into the international break on the back of a positive result.
And Puel is hoping that his team can improve their productivity in the final third after a disappointing outing at home to Chelsea last time out in the league.
“Against Chelsea we played a good game,” he added. “But we perhaps lacked the quality in the final third. Now we need to come back.
“We have to have the answers against Hull. They have difficulties, but it’s going to be a very tough game.”