One of this summer’s most protracted transfer sagas ended when Matthijs de Ligt opted for Juventus, subsequently disappointing their fellow ‘super clubs’.
It’s no exaggeration to suggest De Ligt was a wanted man. The 19-year-old central defender is the man of tomorrow, today. Having established himself at boyhood club Ajax, whom he captained to a first domestic double since 2002 last season, a number of Europe’s most powerful sides reportedly came knocking.
All could offer him something and with centre-backs peaking in their early 30s, this felt like a lifetime acquisition for whoever made the breakthrough. Barcelona, who signed his buddy and former teammate Frenkie de Jong, seemed to have the best papers. Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United were also hovering around. In the end, he opted for Juve, from the land where defending is a religion. Having grown up idolising Italy’s finest exponents, it felt like a natural selection for the Dutchman.
Aside from education – there is no better nation for a defender to learn his trade – it’s a move that makes perfect sense. De Ligt will have no problem attaining regular playing time. What makes that statement true is how much he’s tailor-made for new boss Maurizio Sarri’s brand of football.
Allow me to reintroduce myself
A difficult albeit successful year managing Chelsea shouldn’t diminish Sarri’s credentials nor force him to abandon the football he professes. The former banker, who has a kindred spirit in Pep Guardiola, adheres to a style based on retaining possession. His much-lauded Napoli side, which boasted the imperious Kalidou Koulibaly in the heart of their defence, electrified spectators and came agonisingly close to dethroning Juve.
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) June 20, 2019
Central to his game plan will be the role of the centre-back, or at least one of them. The aforementioned Koulibaly and then David Luiz at the Bridge played integral roles. Namely, blurring the lines between defence and midfield. For now, the system Juve will operate under him is not yet fixed. In the past, he’s dabbled with 4-3-3 (which Dutch footballers know like the back of their hand) and 4-3-1-2, both formations suggesting there will be a central defensive partnership. Giorgio Chiellini – who is Juve’s leader – is a guaranteed starter, which leads to who’ll line up alongside him? As great as Leonardo Bonucci is, there’s a strong argument it should be the incoming De Ligt.
A grand education
From a technical standpoint, the Leiderdorp native is an archetypal Dutch ‘number three’ or playmaking central defender. While deployed by his previous first-team managers, Peter Bosz and Erik ten Hag, he was tasked with constructing from the back. This was made easy as De Ligt’s natural instinct has always been to start, continue and, if possible, finish the attack. In another generation, he would have been the ideal libero.
— AFC Ajax (@AFCAjax) July 18, 2019
Being proficient in mastering continuous ball circulation – music to Sarri’s ears – follows Johan Cruyff’s maxim of those in his position needing to have the “best ball-handling skills”. As Guardiola states, “they bring you out of trouble and set up the forwards”. But don’t assume De Ligt has abandoned his primary responsibilities. He’s still a tough proposition for those up against him. Despite preferring to resolve situations through good positional sense, he’s capable of mixing things up and there have already been plenty of last-ditch tackles made in his burgeoning career.
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Borrowing from the Dutch?
Although fixed in his way, it will be interesting to see whether Sarri and De Ligt indulge in a footballing conversation. Both, as we know, are comfortable with possession-based football. So, there’s a common link. And given how likely it is that Juve are going to face sides playing in compact formations, maybe De Ligt could bring something from his Amsterdam education?
His former club only played horizontally after a vertical pass; a case in point being when the centre-backs travel with the ball, opening up the pitch and moving wider so either full-back can join the midfield line. He and partner in crime Daley Blind were often tasked with provoking the opponent by inviting them forward, and if they applied quick pressure, the ball goes to the other central defender who then makes a vertical pass.
De Ligt 2.0
Once linking up with his new teammates, it will officially mark the first day of the rest of De Ligt’s life. No longer in quiet and comfortable surroundings. He’s relocated to a much more demanding league than the modest Eredivisie and regardless of playing for Italy’s undisputed number one, he will still need to assimilate. De Ligt, easy to forget, doesn’t turn 20 for another month.
It goes without saying that he’s still prone to making the odd mistake. What is going to make things easy for him is how close Sarri’s preferred approach is to what he’s always known. If he continues on this trajectory, now taking place in one of Europe’s most demanding leagues, this current version – which has captured the imagination – will pale into insignificance.