A rocky stalwart. A reliable youngster. A Golden Boy. These are some of the adjectives that one can use to qualify Matthijs De Ligt.
At 21, the Dutchman has - in less than a year - been able to establish himself as a starter at Juventus. A major accomplice to this have been repetitive and annoying injuries to legendary members of the old guard, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini. But does De Ligt start in a healthy backline? When does the Dutch central defender definitely take over its reigns?
The central defender did not get off the the best start in Serie A. Barely 20 years of age, he was thrown in the fray as a starter early on in the season, courtesy of an injury that would sideline Chiellini for the remainder of the season. While he was able to provide good performances, his appearances were too often garnished by wayward balls that bounced off his arm resulting in several penalties.
If, then one sprinkles in the oddity of a season in which the hand/arm ball rule was widely interpreted, De Ligt often ended up on the game's "naughty list.”
Goals are not a defender’s bread and butter, but the Dutchman’s first year proved him to be an aerial threat in the box, particularly from a dead ball situation, collecting four goals and one assist, in 47 appearances. For a defender so tenacious, he’s only collected five yellows so far and no red cards.
As the old-adage goes "you don't know what you've got, 'till it's gone,”De Ligt's absence was felt greatly at Juventus in his months away from action.
A repetitive shoulder injury led Juventus medical staff to recommend that the issue be addressed through surgery. A few days following Juve's last official match of the 2019-20 season, De Ligt went under the knife and began a long period of recovery.
In the intervening period, Leonardo Bonucci was forced to take “extra shifts” holding down the Juventus defence as he could. Giorgio Chiellini, another member of the famed “Barzagli-Bonucci-Chiellini” triumvirate that opened the currentBianconeri dynasty, also struggled to keep fit. His return to action and unparalleled leadership on the field for both club and country was, alas, short. On again, off again (and currently on a 30-day break from muscle injury) Chiellini’s absence made Juventus fateful miss De Ligt even more.
Tall, rocky, timely in his tackles, and oozing confidence. But besides his world class technical skillset, De Ligt shows maturity and leadership qualities beyond his age.
In a recent interview for Icon, he attributed his football schooling to his old club: Ajax, "I think Ajax’s style can be summed up in two words, courage and discipline. There they demand that you learn to play the ball right away and without fear and that you learn to prove who you really are, as a footballer and as a man. It's something that stays with you, a mentality that is also helping me a lot at Juventus.”
At 18, he possessed the self-confidence needed to captain a storied side like Ajax. Today, aged 21, he has steadily become one of the best central defenders in the world in his role, a fixture in the Juventus back line.
De Ligt is not exactly a “backline playmaker” but he directs the team from behind, with authority, in Italian. Upon his return, Juventus won three matches and drew one in Benevento. De Ligt has looked anything but a player returning to action after three months. The November Calciomercato doesn’t exists, but the Dutchman’s return is like a €100m coup for Andrea Pirlo.
After having overcome initial difficulties in adapting to Italian football, De Ligt decided the Derby Della Mole of November 2019, which started a virtuous path that led him to establish himself among the best players of the eventual Serie A champions.
The future of Juventus is all in the hands of the young talent from Leiderdorp. De Ligt immediately commands a starting spot upon his return to the line-up, irrespective of the availability of Bonucci and Chiellini. Time and talent are on his side, the old guard must move aside to make space. A new era has begun.
The BBC must be honoured, remembered, and respected. But it must also give way to a new generation, a new defensive line. Led by Matthijs De Ligt.