Juventus have pulled off the transfer coup of the summer by signing Dutch wunderkind Matthijs de Ligt from Ajax in a €75million deal. The 19-year-old was the hottest property in world football and they saw off ferocious competition from Barcelona, PSG and Manchester United to capture his signature. It came after a breakout season in which he captained the Dutch side to the domestic double and starred in their run to the Champions League semi-finals. A phenomenal defender, he boasts all the necessary attributes to take Serie A by storm.
De Ligt grew up just south of Amsterdam in the town of Abcoude, and he began playing football for his local team at an early age. He was just nine years old when he caught the eye of an Ajax scout and accepted an invitation to join the club’s famed youth academy. The coaches there were initially sceptical of his ability to flourish at the highest level, as they feared he was too slow and chubby. But Ruben Jongkind, Ajax’s head of talent development, saw his potential.
Jongkind knew de Ligt would become a centre-back eventually, but decided to play him in midfield at first in order to help with his decision-making and his reading of the game. There is a great picture of de Ligt as a young boy beaming alongside Luis Suarez, back when the Uruguayan was leading the line for Ajax. By the age of 15, he was regularly being named Player of the Tournament at under-17 and under-19 competitions. By this point, Ajax knew they had a special player on their hands, and de Ligt was fast-tracked into the first team.
He made his debut in a cup game against Willem II on September 21, 2016. De Ligt headed in from a corner after just 25 minutes, becoming the second-youngest goalscorer in Ajax’s storied history, after Clarence Seedorf. He was officially promoted to the senior squad the following month and he quickly formed a strong defensive partnership with Davinson Sanchez.
After making just two senior appearances for Ajax, Danny Blind called him up for the national team. He made his Netherlands debut away at Bulgaria aged 17, making him the youngest Dutch international since 1931.
Ajax went all the way to the Europa League final that season, making de Ligt the youngest player to ever appear in a European final. They suffered a narrow defeat against Jose Mourinho’s United, but de Ligt’s reputation was skyrocketing.
Sanchez was sold to Tottenham in the summer of 2017 and Ajax built their defence around de Ligt. He started 31 league games in the 2017-18 season, but they finished four points behind champions PSV Eindhoven.
In March 2018, club captain Joel Veltman suffered an injury and de Ligt was handed the armband. He became the youngest captain in the club’s history and he remained their leader until he decided to leave this summer.
Everything clicked into place for Ajax in 2018-19. De Ligt was among a new golden generation of budding superstars that took Europe by storm with a string of sensational performances. Frenkie de Jong controlled the midfield with aplomb, Donny van de Beek was a revelation going forward, David Neres emerged as a force to be reckoned with and de Ligt just went from strength to strength at the back.
In December 2018, he became the first defender to ever win the Dutch Golden Boy award, which is given to the country’s finest young player. By this point, Ajax was locked in a gripping title battle with PSV and going strong in the Champions League. Yet everyone fully expected their European adventure to come to an end when they were handed a nightmare draw against reigning champions Real Madrid in the last 16.
De Ligt and co clearly did not get the memo. They suffered a narrow 2-1 defeat at the Amsterdam Arena in the first leg, but Erik ten Hag’s men earned plenty of admirers thanks to the nature of their performance. A strong crop of experienced professionals including Dušan Tadić, Daley Blind and Hakim Ziyech perfectly complimented all the young talent, and Real Madrid looked a little rattled before Marco Asensio’s late winner. In the return leg, Ajax stunned Europe by going to the Bernebeu and beating the European champions 4-1 in their own backyard.
Barcelona tied up a €70 million deal to sign de Jong in January and they were desperate for de Ligt to follow, but he kept his options open. His list of suitors soared during the second half of the campaign. Next up they faced Juventus in the Champions League. The Bianconeri had Cristiano Ronaldo upfront and they were favourties to be crowned champions of Europe, but once again Ajax had other ideas. Neres quickly cancelled out Ronaldo’s strike in Amsterdam to leave the scores level on aggregate, and they put in a monstrous second leg performance at the Juventus Stadium. Ronaldo once again opened the scoring, but van de Beek levelled and, in the 68th minute, de Ligt rose highest from a corner and sent a thumping header past Wojciech Szczesny to send his team through to the semi-finals.
They wiped the floor with Tottenham in the first leg in London, and they were 3-0 ahead on aggregate with just 45 minutes left in the tie, but Ajax ultimately ran out of steam and lost on away goals thanks to a second-half hat-trick from Lucas Moura. Yet the consolation prize was a league and cup double, as Ajax finished ahead of PSV in the Eredivisie and destroyed Willem II in the KNVB Cup final.
De Ligt already had more than 100 Ajax appearances under his belt and is a fixture in the Dutch national side, but it was clear that he needed to move abroad in order to realise his full potential. Barcelona were desperate to snap him up, as were PSG, and he had plenty of suitors in the Premier League, but he ultimately chose Turin.
He is all but guaranteed to win league titles there: if you check out La Liga’s markets here, you will see that Barca face an almighty scrap with a rejuvenated Real Madrid, while the Premier League is extremely competitive, but Juventus’ dominance in Italy is immense. They have won Serie A for the past eight seasons and they are heavy favourites to extend that winning streak in 2019/20. They have Ronaldo upfront and have just bolstered a stellar midfield with the arrivals of Aaron Ramsey and Adrien Rabiot, while club legend Gianluigi Buffon has returned to the fold, but Juventus’ main strength has always been their defence.
For years Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci have formed a rock-solid base for the Old Lady’s triumphs. Barzagli has just retired and Chiellini is now 34, so it was clearly time to bring in some fresh blood and create a succession plan. Daniele Rugani is a decent option, but de Ligt is a potential world-beater and he can dominate the Juve defence for the next 15 years if he is so inclined.
He is regularly compared to Jaap Stam, but he is also very similar to Gerard Pique in his clean, aggressive tackling and accurate passing. He is quick, tall, strong and tenacious, but also classy on the ball, and has all the ingredients to make a success of his time in Italy. They have just appointed Maurizio Sarri as their new manager, and de Ligt is the perfect welcome present. He has already broken plenty of records during his short career, and he could well send many more crashing down in the years ahead.
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