In a week in which Ajax needed penalties to overcome Fortuna in the National Cup, Feyenoord beat FC Utrecht 1-0 and needing 20+ goal chances to do so, John van ‘t Schip got sacked at PEC Zwolle and Real Madrid is shivering the best news of course was Matthijs’ winning the Golden Boy award.
If there is one player of which it is certain he will be a Dutch football star for many years to come, it is the 19 year old Ajax skipper. I mean… let that sink in: 19 year old Ajax skipper!
His election was not a surprise to anyone. When you are a defender and you only made 1 foul on your own half in half a season, well… That is quite the statistic.
So, in a line of players like Lionel Messi, Paul Pogba, Mbappe and Rafa van der Vaart, Matthijs is European football royalty.
It is noteable to mention to that Justin Kluivert got to third place, behind Liverpool’s Trent Alexander Arnold.
But, I believe he is the first defender in the whole series and that makes it extra special. Just like Virgil van Dijk was Player of the Month in England recently, the first defender to get that honour in many years (following Dutchies like Van Persie, Bergkamp, Van Nistelrooy, Van der Vaart and Krul).
The spotlights were on De Ligt (and other Ajax players) already in the transfer jungle and it seems Barcelona is happy to wait for the right moment (coming summer?) to sign the youngster. While picking up his award in Turin, Juve threw in the big guns (Pavel Nedved) to convince De Ligt to cancel his Spain flight and head to Italy instead…
Ajax coach Erik ten Hag is incredibly proud of this player. “This is a highly prestigious award. A tremendous honour. He is so young still but already has so much under his belt. And it shows also where he could end up. Usually, it’s forwards that get the plaudits and now a defender. And he did it all himself. How he work, what he invests… It’s a tremendous stimulus. I can see him improve even more. He is so down to Earth and you can see him eat it all up, and enjoy it all. He is so motivated to learn. This award will be like doping for him.”
At the Tuttosport Gala in Turin, the presenter of the night couldn’t control himself and asked De Ligt about Juve. “Juventus? A wonderful club. A huge club. It’s great when your name is linked to a club like Juve, but currently my focus is Ajax.” The presenter: “But…playing with C Ronaldo?”. Matthijs: “He truly is an inspiration for me. His dedication to the game, he is always looking for challenges.”
Nedved with De Ligt
The award show was further augmented with a series of photos of De Ligt, one where he was an Ajax ball boy, posing with Suarez. “Hahaha, yes Ajax will give young players chances… I was a ball boy then, I’m the skipper now.”
Asked about the players that went before him: “Oh that list, yes… I looked them up and I think I know that list by heart, hahaha. Messi for me is the top of the top. I was six years old when he won this award. I am so proud.
In the Eredivisie, De Ligt is hardly challenged. Striker like Luuk de Jong are not a real challenge for him. Matthijs is strong, quick, tall and reads the game astonishingly well. It’s more the Idrissi (AZ) and Van Persie like strikers / forwards in Holland that might be able to surprise him. Only one foul on his own half, in 14+ matches… Did I mention that?
But internationally, De Ligt still have some big chores ahead of him. The Bayern CL game at home for Ajax, showed how hard it can be to defend against world class strikers, from the category Benzema, Cavani, C Ronaldo or Diego Costa.
Take the Lewandowski goal against Ajax. A De Ligt mistake for sure. In the Eredivisie, that would probably never be fatal. Lewandowski lives for these types of situations. Wober is ball watching. Lewandowski sees it and immediately makes a run into that space. De Ligt sees it but gets startled and instead of playing him off side by stepping up, he drops back and allows the Bayern striker to be on side: 0-1.
A mistake a more experienced defender might not make. And a mistake that will allow De Ligt to become that more experienced defender. As the saying goes: I owe my good decision making to my experience. I owe my experience to the bad decisions I made.
De Ligt’s real asset is not his defending per se. There are many good and solid defenders in Europe. But there are not a lot of defenders who can play ball like De Ligt. He has a good pass in his legs, he can dribble too. That is what you get with a central defender who was developed as a midfielder.
Against Bayern’s 4-4-2, any wrong pass would immediately to a counter, as we saw. But De Ligt is the player with the highest passing accuracy. The passes don’t go forward too often though, which is changed when in the second half Blind and De Jong change roles and De Ligt moves more to the right, where he can successfully feed Ziyech.
In the second half, there is one situation that shows how good De Ligt really is. First he takes the pointy end out of the Bayern counter by moving into Coman and when Rafinha enters the box with potentially two tea mates to pick out, De Ligt doesn’t bite but defends the space and keeps really in control.
Any other player might feel forced to choose. De Ligt simply stays on the front foot and keeps an eagle eye on the movement of the two forwards and the decision making of Rafinha. Rafinha gets confused, De Ligt can intercept his pass and with his kick upfield launches Dolberg who will claim the penalty as a result and puts Ajax in front (Tadic).
De Ligt did have some errors in the game, slight ones, but they did result in two goals. Typical, when you play against a top team. In the run up to the penalty, he is too late in letting Lewandowski go and move up to Thiago, which results in Tagliafico making the wrong decision. And with the 2-3, he realises too late that Mazraoui is out of position and he can’t block the shot anymore.
Matthijs’ team mates are to blame for these last two goals, but De Ligt couldn’t rescue the situation.
The Polish gunslinger does score twice but has hardly a win in the personal duels with De Ligt. He loses most aerial battles and is on par with De Ligt in the 50-50 challenges.
De Ligt’s biggest point to improve is his agility (or lack thereof). Matthijs reads situations amazingly well but if he makes an error, he lacks the explosivity and agility to correct it. Of course, a lot of amazing defenders lack this (Boateng, Kompany, Terry) so it doesn’t mean all that much, but improvement in this area will surely make De Ligt a sensational defender.
Typical for the down to Earth dude he is, after the Bayern match the Ajax captain said the infamous words: “Ok, this was a real challenge.”