The highest-rated young defender in the world, Matthijs de Ligt has the world at his feet and the opportunity to become an all-time great – but pre-season showings and the events of the Serie A match week one has cast a doubt over the rationale behind his move to the Turin side.
In the biggest transfer of the season (pending the outcome of the Neymar transfer saga), de Ligt moved from his boyhood club Ajax to European giants Juventus. Now 20 years old, de Ligt was snapped up for a fee in the region of £75m after Juventus successfully convinced him to ignore all his other suitors.
Matthijs de Ligt rose to prominence after the sale of Davinson Sanchez to Tottenham in 2017, when he became an undisputed starter for Ajax. Prior to becoming a starter, he had already announced himself with a bang to Dutch football, scoring on his debut match in 2016 at just 17 years old, and playing in the Europa League final versus Manchester United, becoming the youngest player to play in a major final. The following season saw him create another major headline as he was named Ajax club captain following an injury to captain Joel Veltman.
In 2018, barely two years after his Ajax debut, he was nominated for and won the Golden Boy award, becoming the first defender to do so. It was at this point he became a highly sought-after player in world football, and there were several attempts to compare his style of play to already existing world-class defenders, with Gerard Pique being the name that popped up most in these discussions. Even De Ligt compared himself to Pique in an interview granted to ELF Voetbal Magazine (via Sport English) that his playing style was “a little like Pique”.
In the 2018/19 season, Ajax had a magnificent run in the Champions League, and at the centre of that run was the club’s 19-yer old captain. He proved his mettle as he marshalled his troops past both Real Madrid and Juventus in the knockout stages of the competition, with showings that would make anyone unfamiliar with the lad’s exploit question his age.
Now, he has chosen to take his next steps into the elite world of defenders by joining the team with arguably the world’s best centre pairing, Juventus.
While he can benefit from the experience of Georgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, it will definitely tell on his already developed playing style because he will have to unlearn some of his methods while trying to adapt to a totally new style of defending for which the Serie A is known, and which Chiellini and Bonucci personify. The most troublesome part of this is that he will most likely be doing all of these from the bench and this will be a lot to take in for the young man who is already a leader on the pitch.
Ronald Koeman, coach of the Netherlands national team expressed concern over De Ligt’s new predicament ahead of next month’s international break, hinting that his chances of retaining a spot in the Oranje’s starting line-up could be reduced if things continue the way they are.
“On the one hand, you assume that he is going to play because he makes a transfer for a lot of money. But if a club has Chiellini and Bonucci, it may be that the coach makes a different choice,” said Koeman to Studio Voetbal. “The moment he chooses Juventus, he goes to another country and he has to learn a new language. That takes time, but of course, that should not take too long. I am not worried yet, but if this is still the case in October, then you will start thinking about the fact that he has no rhythm.”
These statements by Koeman echo the sentiments of many followers of De Ligt’s career and with Chiellini and Bonucci looking sharp as ever and showing no signs of slowing down, the young captain may have just lost his rank and will have to start all over. In today’s football world, that is rarely a good thing.