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Matthijs de Ligt

Ajax to Juventus, £67.5m

Profile
Matthijs de Ligt joined the Ajax academy at the age of nine. He made his senior debut at 16 in a 5-0 victory over Willem II, in which he became the club’s second youngest goalscorer, after Clarence Seedorf. The central defender swiftly established himself in the first team, demonstrating the abilities that contributed to him becoming the youngest ever player to feature in a major European final when Ajax lost in the 2017 Europa League to Manchester United.

That season De Ligt also made his Netherlands debut, at 17 becoming the youngest to start for them since 1931, and has since developed a fine central defensive partnership with Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk. Showing both a maturity beyond his years and outstanding leadership qualities, De Ligt became Ajax’s youngest captain in March 2018, furthering a reputation that looks set to be enhanced still more after signing for Serie A champions Juventus.

Tactical analysis
De Ligt usually plays as the right-sided central defender and is regularly involved in the first line of the build-up for both country and club. He has great composure in possession, playing the ball simply – rarely losing it – and most commonly to the central midfielders or defenders closest to him.

The 19-year-old (he turns 20 in August) also excels at tempting opponents out of position by playing short, underweighted passes to teammates (above) to invite the closest opponent to press the receiver. This in turn creates space for when possession is returned to him, allowing him to play a penetrative pass through the opposition’s midfield.

De Ligt is a significant threat from attacking set-plays; he scored seven for club and country throughout the 2018/19 season, including against both Juventus and Tottenham in the Champions League and against England in the Nations League semi finals. He is particularly threatening with headers from corners; he generates great power when heading, usually after making an intelligent run towards the ball, either on the blindside of his marker or across other players. Either way, he makes it very difficult for his marker to remain touch-tight.

The Dutchman has developed alongside his classy compatriots Daley Blind and Van Dijk, and he can be expected to continue learning from wily veterans Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci at Juve. Out of possession, he has a tendency to be man-oriented, sometimes excessively; he can occasionally leave spaces or become detached from his defensive unit.

His excellence at defending crosses is owed not only to his height, but also to his positioning. De Ligt prioritises seeing his man and the ball for as long as possible (above); this potentially opens opportunities for an attacker to burst across and exploit the space in front of him, but it is often countered by the physical attributes that make him so capable of covering ground and protecting his goal.

Once the ball is wide and near the goalline, De Ligt assumes covering positions around the six-yard-box to defend low crosses (below). He also prefers to tackle with his front foot, to keep his weight behind the ball and therefore challenge with increased strength and balance. When defending against an attacker facing away from goal, he uses his upper body to try and manipulate where the attacker moves to help recover the ball. It is this approach he will have to improve in Italy, where it can be perceived as reckless and ultimately penalised.

Role at new club
In Chiellini, Bonucci and De Ligt, Juventus possess three of the world’s finest central defenders – even if Chiellini and Bonucci are past their peaks.

New manager Maurizio Sarri’s inflexible approach was criticised while in England with Chelsea, but he is expected to retain that same approach and therefore again organise his team into a 4-3-3 or 4-1-4-1.

As the right-sided central defender, De Ligt will likely be the long-term successor to Bonucci, and instructed to play the same way in possession as he did with Ajax and the Netherlands – into midfield, and looking to penetrate forward.

He will also perhaps need to improve his passing range to find Cristiano Ronaldo in behind the opposition’s defence. If he does so, he will demonstrate exactly why Juve did so well to sign him amid reported interest from Manchester United, Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain.

Matthijs de Ligt

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