Tag: Matthijs de Ligt

Matthijs De Ligt: The Wonder

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…

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Future Stars: Golden Boy Matthijs de Ligt

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.”


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Your vote: best Dutch international of 2018

It’s your time now!

As we close to the end of the year, a year in which the drab and disgraced Dutch National Team straightened the back and rose, like a Phoenix from the ashes. With victories over the newly crowned World Champs, the former world champs and good results and performances overall vs the likes of Belgium and Portugal.

And the result: group winner in the Nations League and a big jump on the FIFA ranking.

Most importantly: the fans love the team again and the team loves playing for Holland again.

And boy, did we see tremendous development in our player? I mean, Denzel Dumfries?? Pablo Rosario?? Marten de Roon? Tonny Vilhena? Ryan Babel?

Time to pick the best international of the year… I’ll help you with some insights, but the vote is all yours. I’ll give you until December 1, and then we’ll announce the winner here, with a cool interview/article on the winner.

The Candidates

Virgil van Dijk, our captain, deserves the first mention. What to say… His year was tremendous. The big money move to Liverpool. The winner in his debut vs arch enemy Everton. His stats are terrific. In Oranje, he developed into a great leader and skipper, with the deciding goal in the final minutes vs Germany. Does it get better than that?

Virgil is a true natural leader. The way he handles his team mates, the way he covered up the young ball girl when he noticed she was shivering in the cold, the warm manner in which he consoled the ref after the Germany game, when Virgil learned the poor dude lost his mum (and got notified of that fact during the half time break). Virgil… pure class!

Memphis Depay is in the key age group for top notch peformances, and it shows. The former Sparta talent is a changed man. From arrogant, self-centered, headstrong wannabe winger in Manchester, he grew into a lethal striker in Lyon. With stats that are only topped by Messi and C Ronaldo. Better stats than Neymar and Mbappe, to name other forwards in France. The loner, who clashed with the likes of Sneijder and Van Persie is now a team player. One of the leaders on and off the pitch. Ever since he found God, Memphis is a better human being, more humble, active with his foundations for the lesser fortunate ones and on the pitch he is unstoppable.

He creates goals, he scores them, has a sensational corner kick delivery, hustles and hassles defenders, keeps three markers busy while working for the team and stretching the play. He’s clearly in a positive mindset, as he coaches, encourages and directs the play from the front.

Every “Best Player” award should go to a forward. A player who makes a difference. A player that draws people to the stadium. Cantona, Ginola, Ibrahimovic, C Ronaldo, Ozil, Ribery, Rooney… Memphis falls in that category and I personally don’t care what hat he wears or what colour leather seats are in his Bentley.

Frenkie de Jong is probably a solid candidate as well, even though he only played 4 caps for Oranje. His talent was spotted many years back and both Willem II and Ajax decided to bring this kid slowly. He was 20 years old when he made his first foray into Ajax 1. As opposed to the likes of Seedorf, Kluivert Sr and Jr and many others who got their first games at 16 or 17 years old. But once Frenkie made his mark on the first team, everyone could see his tremendous potential. So much so, that Frenkie is already the new footballing leader (playmaker) of Oranje. Everything goes via him. And he is already seen as unmissable. And its expected he’ll make a massive jump from Ajax to a world class team in the summer (Man City, Barca, Bayern, Real Madrid, Chelsea….).

Gini Wijnaldum has also made a sensational growth, finally, to establish his position in Oranje. Making his debut more than 10 years ago (!) at 16, in Feyenoord’s first team as a #10. Used as winger at PSV. Signed by Newcastle as box-to-box midfielder and in 2014 suddenly part of the Oranje midfield that got bronze in Brazil under Van Gaal. Van Gaal apparently was reluctant to use Wijnaldum as controlling mid, believing the always smiling Georginhio would be able to play there, but he managed and even scored vs Brazil in the losers final. Klopp signed him at Liverpool and immediately told him he signed him for the controlling mid role. Today, Liverpool uses him on any spot in midfield. Despite all the new midfield signings, Wijnaldum – when fit – plays. In Oranje, Frenkie de Jong’s game allows Gini to play further upfield and be more decisive for Oranje, scoring important goals.

Mathijs de Ligt is considered one of the best central backs in Europe and like Frenkie, appears on all the scouting lists. The grounded Dutch lad, called “Dickie” as he used to be a tad overweight in the Ajax youth (in Dutch, the word for fat is “dik” so he was called Dickie), is only 19 years old but plays like a 26 year old. Composed, focused, and utterly complete. Fast enough, strong, fierceful header of the ball, able to dribble infield (Dickie used to be a midfielder) and with a good long pass as well. De Ligt will go places. He’ll be the Oranje centre back for at least another 10 to 12 years (if he remains fit). And we’ll see him playing for one of the top teams in the world for sure (Bayern, Barca, Real Madrid).

Ryan Babel‘s story is the come back story of the decade (in Oranje). He broke through in Ajax as a winger, but was considered an ideal player for a 4-4-2, a system Ajax back then simply didn’t want to play. Babel made his name in Young Oranje, under Foppe de Haan and impressed with his physique, his “hip” shot and his speed and power. Ajax was happy to let him go for a decent offer as he didn’t fit the bill in Ajax’ 4-3-3. By then Marco van Basten brought him into Oranje where Babel scored in his debut game. San Marco called him “the next Thierry Henry”. His big money move to Liverpool got waylaid as he tore his ankle ligaments right before the Euros2008 and was ruled for a spell, which forced Liverpool to sign alternatives and Babel got behind in the pecking order (behind Dirk Kuyt, amongst others). Bert van Marwijk kept faith in Babel and used him extensively after the 2008Euros. Kenny Dalglish, manager at Liverpool, decided to bring Luis Suarez to the club and let Babel go. The dark days followed, with a stint at Hoffenheim which didn’t work out. He went back to Ajax to rejuvenate his career, but ended up in the Turkish competition and not much later choose the money of the UAE league. He ended up playing for the reserves there and was relieved to be able to return to Turkey via Deportivo La Coruna. Now he’s at Besiktas where his good form got him a spot in Advocaat’s Oranje back in 2017. The explosive winger from yesteryear is now a mature team player, playing as a wingback. He clearly acts as mentor for the younger lads (on the pitch and potentially in the music studio as well) and his workrate and tactical smarts have brought him lots of kudos from all Oranje fans and pundits.

Other candidates? Jasper Cillesen? Top goalie on the Barca bench, but usually strong when relied upon. Both in Spain as in Oranje. Although the two German goals last time around did seem stoppable… Or Daley Blind? Mr Reliable? Good touch. Superb vision. Excellent passing. Pleasant positive personality. But vulnerable in defence? Just not tall enough? Just not quick enough? Quincy Promes than? Scoring goals like there is no tomorrow for Spartak, but always a question mark in Oranje (and Sevilla). Despite all this, his success in Moscow was always as a number 9, so maybe Promes should be seen as the understudy for Memphis?

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