Matthijs De Ligt. Dutch Delight. The Wonder. There will be more nicknames for him, for sure. The most discussed player of the Netherlands after Frenkie signed for Barcelona. Everyone wanted to know where Matthijs would move to. Every club wanted him. Would he follow Frenkie to Barca, or did Matthijs have his own dream club?
Well, clearly he did. The youngest Ajax skipper to win a trophy, to play Champions League knew exactly where he wanted to go to. And he told his agent: “Get me a deal there. But keep it all secret until after the Nations League finals. I want to focus on football and will announce my future after.”
Ajax did well in replacing both players by the way and they added more silverware by beating PSV 2-0 in the Johan Cruyff Schaal this weekend. The start of the season. With PSV somewhat pressed and stressed as they play a key match on Tuesday again vs Basel for the Champions League.
Both teams still couldn’t field the strongest teams, with Ziyech, Tagliafico, Mazraoui and Neres still not fully match fit. PSV was cautious with Lozano and Bruma. The result? A weird game, with a very early Ajax goal (Dolberg) taking advantage of a PSV defensive error, PSV playing decent but lacking oomph and missing that brilliance in the final third. Some discussion points too with Jorrit Hendrix getting away with murder and a superb goal by Man of the Match Daley Blind which was contested due to an alleged foul in the build up. But the ref didn’t budge and allowed the goal, making it Daley’s game. The son of Danny played in the Frenkie role and did ever so well.
De Ligt is gone, long live Perr Schuurs
Another name to remember is Perr Schuurs, the tall central defender demonstrated pure class on the ball and might well be the next Ajax defender moving on to bigger things. Schuurs came from Fortuna Sittard a summer ago and worked under the radar on his speed of execution and his build up pass. He demonstrated to be courageous in the challenges and his build up play was excellent!
Finding strong, powerful central defenders is not easy. It’s probably the toughest position on the pitch (arguably). You need to be tall, fast, be able to read the game, lead the defence and act from a tactical perspective, you need to be tough, you need to be able to head a ball, you need balls to put your body on the line but also the skills to set up that attack… the through ball, the dribble, the long pass… All these aspects. And Matthijs de Ligt has it all in spades.
And when you can find him as a product of the famous Ajax school and he’s only 19 years old, well…. Break that piggy bank and sign him!
Man City, Man United, Liverpool and all other EPL clubs decided to let it go, once they found out PSG, Juve and Barca were highly keen to go to the max.
Barca wasn’t able to compete and walked away. It was between PSG and Juve, so it seems, but after signing for the Grand Ol’ Dame De Ligt declared it was always Juventus for him. “I have been a Juve fan for years. The jersey, their history, the players who played there. And as a defender, I am really in awe of Italian defenders and the way Juventus can dominate matches on the basis of that. As a kid, I had a Man U jersey with 7, for C Ronaldo, so the fact that he’s there made it even better. ”
Playing and practicing with C Ronaldo is the cherry on the cake for De Ligt, but the central defender says that Ronaldo’s courting of him after the Juve – Ajax game didn’t really impact his decision. “Hahaha, I actually didn’t know what he said, to be honest. It all went so quick. Only later did I realise he was telling me to join Juve, haha. But I had made my mind up already. I was keen to go to Turin.”
His start with the Italian champs might not have been too great. Spurs took the win (again from De Ligt’s perspective) and De Ligt even made an own goal in the pre-season but just like with his Oranje debut (making two howlers), he will definitely get up again and soldier on.
As all media will tell you everything you need to know about De Ligt today, we’ll go into the photo books and discuss his roots.
Matthijs was born in Leidschendam (closer to Rotterdam than Amsterdam – sic) but the family moved to Abcoude (just south of Amsterdam) when he was 1 year old, due to his dad’s work. He’s the oldest of three kids. His younger brother Wouter would become his best mate.
The De Ligt family was not your typical football family. Mum and dad played hockey and tennis and when 5 years old, Matthijs took up tennis and ended up being a tremendous talent and would become one of the club’s best youth players. “He had a natural eye for the ball and good reflexes. It was when a school mate had a football match and Matthijs decided to go and watch that he got the football bug,” his dad Frank says.
Matthijs played 3 years for FC Abcoude and was a different type of kid than others. “He wasn’t one of those players that hogged the bal or tried to dribble all the way to the other goal. He played defence and he passed the ball. He was strong already and had a good shot for a young kid. When FC Abcoude had a game vs Ajax (E-youth), the Ajax youth coach immediately saw his talent and made a play for him. It was bound to happen,” says the Abcoude youth coach now.
Initially, Ajax hesitated. Matthijs had some baby fat still and was heavier than the other kids. But when he dribbled across the pitch and fired a rocket in the top corner – against Ajax again – the Ajax youth coordinator predicted: “This kid is going to go far!” and Ajax invited him in.
Dad Frank: “He had 4 or 5 practice sessions with Ajax and we got the call that they wanted him.”
Matthijs was not your typical Amsterdam street kid. He was shy, quiet. He distanced himself a bit from the bravado types and just did his thing. When the youth coach wanted to make him the captain of his team, Matthijs declined. He just wanted to do this thing.
Dad Frank: “He was only focusing on the football itself. He was always with a ball and he was always training. He was working out at home with weights, he would come up with skills practices in the back yard with his little brother. Always perfecting his game.”
Matthijs before his growth spurt (next to goalie)
His dedication and focus were rare. “He never really went out with friends and was always happy to be alone. He likes structure and patterns to be fall back on. And he always got agitated if we started to ask too many questions. Asking him if all was well, and all this. He loves to be left alone to deal with things. When he turned 18 and could get his drivers license (and as a result a lease car from Ajax) he said he didn’t want to. He wasn’t interested in cars. “I want to focus on football, this driving lessons thing is distracting. It will come later!”. Matthijs knew exactly what he wanted.
At Ajax, in the youth system, most kids would be on their iPhone or play PlayStation games. Not Matthijs. One could call him old-fashioned. An old soul maybe. Matthijs played cards. Like all the stars from the past (Suurbier, Krol, Cruyff, Neeskens), Matthijs loves klaverjassen. And he was always different like that. If a kid was bullied at school, he wouldn’t join in with the group, but protect and support the weaker kid. Old fashioned values.
He was already mature when he was 15 years old and his character was definitely further polished by his Ajax adventures.
Matthijs is loath of the attention football players get. He wants to be normal. He wants to be able to go to a restaurant with his family and just have a nice dinner. So when several agents and managers started knocking on the door of the De Ligt family, dad Frank made a move. “I think we all realised that all the wonderful opportunities would come in due time. We wanted Matthijs to be coached or mentored by a man with an Ajax heart, someone who was about the art of defending. Barry Hulshoff was our man!”.
Barry Hulshoff, former Ajax central defender in the Cruyff era. Dutch international too (but injured during the World Cup 1974). But mostly, a decent human being. Dad Frank called Hulshoff and since 2014, Barry meets with Matthijs once a month. Not to talk money, contracts, percentages or cars, but talking about match situations, about defending, about preparation for a game.
Hulshoff: “There was a lot to work on. Little things, ok, but enough to work on to make his much better. Examples…? We worked on his speed on the first meters. His explosiveness. I found him an athletics coach who worked on this. Also, his long pass with his left. It’s key to be able to play the cross pass with left and right. What a weapon. And the key thing for me: being able to execute a sliding tackle with his left and right. He conceded a penalty vs Volendam 2 with Ajax 2, when he had to tackle with his left, but he tried to do it with his right. Penalty! Also, you need to be able to see when you need to go to ground for a sliding and when you don’t. And Matthijs has this down pat for 90% I think. He’s very intuitive.”
Left: with little bro and right with his family a couple of years ago
Hulshoff was key in measuring De Ligt’s progress. Measuring body fat, muscle strength and preparing him for life at the top, as a defender.
Barry: “I also let him decide and organise a lot of things for himself. When he’s injured, I want him to research it himself, to take responsibility. He is very good with criticism too, he simply wants to get better and better. Losing is something he hates and when he was in Ajax 2 he started to become more vocal. Coaching team mates or scolding them if they screwed up. The skipper was showing up for work.”
The new Juve central defender is also a historian. Hulshoff: “Matthijs is a real Ajax fan. I gave him a book about the first success period of the club, from 1966 till 1973. He studied it in details and was able to tell me more about the matches than I knew. Line ups, who gave the assists, in what minute did who score… And I played in those games!!”
Matthijs remembers his period in the Ajax youth really well. “My first season in the E youth was great. The level was much better than what I was used to and I played with lads that made it big, like Justin Kluivert, Donyell Malen and Bobby Adekanye. I played midfield in those days. We played some international tournaments even, in Spain and in the Czech Republic. Was cool.”
With a laugh: “They called me Dikkie, in those days. Fatty. Look at my face, I had some surplus fat, hahaha. I had this tremendous growth spurt at some stage and I was supposed to be the best player and the leader. I was also going to high school then and the pressure was on. I didn’t feel to comfortable about it all, it was quite tough, but I came through alright.”
“The C1 team was really really good. I think we had the best Dutch youth player on every position. We played the cup final against PSV and Bakboord was usually our central defender, but he was injured, so the coach put me there. We won 4-1 and I never played midfield since.”
In 2015/2016 I got the “Talent of the Future” award at Ajax. That started off a lot of things. My name became known. Media started to see me and I was also the best player of the Future Cup. This is when I started to realise that I was on a good trajectory…