The 17-year-old broke a series of records in the Eredivisie – and Liverpool have now beaten Bayern, Ajax and PSV to the defender’s signature
Just three months after his 16th birthday, Sepp van den Berg became the youngest player ever to feature for PEC Zwolle and the youngest to appear in the Eredivisie for almost 60 years.
The match – a 2-0 defeat to Groningen in March 2018 – was unremarkable except for the half-time substitution which saw the tall youngster with the distinct ginger mop step into the defence alongside Philippe Sandler, who left to join Manchester City a few months later.
Even Van den Berg was caught by surprise when coach John van ‘t Schip told him to get ready.
“I really didn’t see it coming,” he later told Voetbal International. “I already thought it was nice that I was [in the squad]. I was shocked enormously. The coach said I had to come on. I remember thinking: ‘Did I hear that right?’ I almost started to doubt myself.
“Then I sat and looked around, dreaming. After a few seconds, I carefully asked if I should warm up. ‘Yes, Sepp, you have to warm up now’. It sounded quite serious. Then I just went outside.”
By then, however, he had already caught the attention of top teams in Europe. Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund had been scouting him before he signed his first professional contract. A few more teams would join the list when he went on to break Clarence Seedorf’s record as the youngest to play in 10 Eredivisie matches last September.
“He’s a good boy,” Dwight Lodeweges, who assisted Van ‘t Schip at PEC when Van den Berg broke through, said last year. “We have all watched him grow. In certain games he was our best man. He is tall, fast, has ball-playing ability and has insight.”
The scrawny 6ft 2in teenager is clearly a raw talent, but with Europe’s hawkish, super-rich clubs constantly lurking and ready to snap up the Dutch league’s best players, his reputation as a precocious defender with bags of potential made him stand out.
Entering the final year of his contract and having admitted he had no intention of extending his stay in Zwolle, Van den Berg became an easy target for teams looking to invest in cheap but promising players.
Sampdoria tried to sign him in January while Bayern Munich, Ajax and PSV were all interested this summer. But it is Champions League winners Liverpool who have pounced on the centre-back’s precarious position at PEC Zwolle and plucked him from his hometown team for a mere £1.3 million.
It may be a relatively risk-free transfer for the Reds, but for Van den Berg the move to Anfield is a giant step just over a year after he made his senior debut.
With 23 senior appearances and only 15 starts to his name, he is unproven and far from the level required to break into the Liverpool starting XI.
However, the Reds believe he has the potential to develop into a first-team player in the future – even if he is likely to start next season in the Under-23s squad.
He reads the game well and is conscious of his positioning, helping the defence keep its shape when they are under attack. He makes sure he is there to bat crosses away or block the path of forwards trying to charge into the box.
He is calm and composed in tackles, too, staying on his feet for as long as he can to shut out the danger instead of sliding in recklessly.
He will continue to develop at Liverpool and learn from senior stars like compatriots Virgil van Dijk and Georginio Wijnaldum.
It is the lack of guarantees over a spot in the PEC Zwolle defence that encouraged him to leave so soon. Things turned sour once Jaap Stam replaced Van ‘t Schip in December and dropped the baby-faced academy graduate to the reserves, even though he had still been impressive when called upon.
An iconic centre-back for Netherlands and Manchester United, Stam merely wanted to encourage Van den Berg to be more of a commanding presence in the heart of the defence. Instead, he took it as an insult.
“It is actually really simple,” he said in April. “PEC would like to extend but until this weekend I hadn’t played for weeks. I see no reason to extend at the moment.
“Really, I am satisfied at PEC. This is my youth club. If I was always playing, I’d probably say: ‘I’ll sign’. Then the chance that I’ll play next season would automatically be greater. Now I’m in no hurry.
“With the last coach I played a lot. When a new coach comes in, you know things can change. But the fact I wasn’t even in the squad was quite a shock.”
Liverpool fans may have already christened him the “baby Van Dijk”, but he is taking a considerably different path to the Netherlands captain.
Van Dijk was a pillar of consistency and class at Groningen, where he made 66 appearances before leaving for Celtic. His potential to reach the top was obvious by the end of his second season, but he still had to take the long route to European glory and Ballon d’Or candidacy.
The younger Van den Berg may have impressed at PEC Zwolle, but he has a long way to go to develop into the complete defender that Van Dijk has worked so hard to become. At the age of just 17, time is certainly on his side.
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