Matthijs de Ligt was not happy. The Juventus defender had, by common consent, been one of the best players on the pitch against Villarreal in their Champions League last- 16 game. His recent form had been outstanding. A 1-1 draw put Juventus in a strong position ahead of Wednesday’s second leg. But as he left the field, De Ligt was still thinking about the Villarreal goal. Replaying the cross from Étienne Capoue, the run from Dani Parejo, the decision to step up instead of hold the line. Furious with himself.
He’s still thinking about it almost a month later, which gives you an idea of the Dutchman’s mindset. “I always want to be the most critical about myself,” he says over a virtual call from Turin. “I know exactly when I did something wrong. To grow, sometimes you have to accept you made the wrong decisions. And yeah, in that situation I could have done better.”
The pursuit of perfection is what drives De Ligt. At Juventus he has been a colleague and understudy to Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci. Virgil van Dijk is his centre-back partner with the national team. From an early age many observers have suggested that De Ligt may one day be their equal. But the standards at the sharp end of the game keep rising.
Defending at the top level is perhaps harder than it has ever been. “Before, you had different types,” De Ligt explains. “You had the ones who were just in the box, heading balls away, but couldn’t play. And you had defenders who were really good with the ball but couldn’t defend. The trend now is that all defenders are quite complete. They’re all fast, they’re all strong, they can play with the ball. The level is different.”
De Ligt could always play. He was originally a midfielder in the Ajax youth teams, a skilled passer who modelled his game not on Chiellini but Andrea Pirlo, not Sergio Ramos but Sergio Busquets. But even when Juventus paid £70m for him in 2019, the other side of his game remained a relative unknown. How would the teenage technician fare in the furnace of Serie A, where mistakes earn you not encouraging applause from a progressive young coach, but jeers and finger-pointing and a week of scrutiny in the newspapers?
Slowly at first, and then decisively, De Ligt has provided the answer. Three years in Turin have hardened and honed him, revealed his true nature. He feels “more secure, more calm”. He can “read situations better than before”. It turns out that beneath the cultured exterior there was a defensive brute in there all along.
“At Ajax, when I was 15 I played as a midfielder,” he says. “Then I became a centre-back, playing out of the back and not really understanding the situation and what it needed. Sometimes you had to kick the ball away, sometimes you had to play, and with experience I learned the right thing to do in the situation.
“The dirty work is so important. People call it dirty, but I find it really nice. To head the ball away, to win duels. I’m quite an old-school defender in that way. You have a lot of defenders now who just stay in position, cover the spaces. But I also like to defend one-on-one, battle against the opponent. At Ajax I was used to playing a really high line. Sometimes too much, maybe. That’s quite risky. Now at Juventus it’s about finding a balance.”
Certainly De Ligt could wish for few better mentors than his current captain, who even in an injury-afflicted season retains the experience, hunger and killer instinct that made him a European champion with Italy last summer. It is Chiellini whom De Ligt refers in response to a question about whether defensive instinct – positioning, anticipation, foresight – is an innate talent or a skill that can be taught.
“You can definitely improve,” he says. “For example, Giorgio is now 37. And right now he plays like he is reading a book. He knows: ‘OK, this situation will happen, and then this will happen now.’ And obviously he didn’t have this when he was 20. So with experience, he learned. But it’s also a little bit about having the feeling. The feeling where something can go wrong, or where the guy’s going to pass the ball. That’s something quite natural. And I think all the good defenders in the world have this.”
From Johan Cruyff to Dennis Bergkamp, Marco van Basten to Christian Eriksen, the Ajax talent factory has an enviable pedigree when it comes to producing creative attacking players. But its record of producing world-class defenders is more variable. Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld are probably the best of the last couple of decades; others like Thomas Vermaelen, Daley Blind and Davinson Sánchez have had some success but also been exposed at the very highest level. De Ligt could end up being the best of the bunch. But to hear him talk about the differences between his former clubs and their varying priorities provides an interesting counterpoint.
“The most important thing for me is to win. At Juventus, if we win 1-0 and play bad, honestly I think everybody will still be happy. And if you play amazing and lose 2-1, you’re not happy. Every team has a certain DNA, that’s different in every club. If you defend really high and you lose 5-0, 4-0, then yeah. OK. Maybe it’s better to stay a bit lower.”
De Ligt still speaks with great affection about his time at Ajax, the thrilling young side that came so close to winning the Europa League in 2017 and the Champions League in 2019. He’s still in touch with many of his former teammates: Donny van de Beek, Hakim Ziyech, Frenkie de Jong. Most of all, he remembers the life lessons. “The discipline to work hard, to be nice to people, to have respect: they’re big on education at Ajax, and that’s something I still take with me everywhere I go.”
It still feels a little strange to be talking about De Ligt in the past tense, given he is only 22. “I’m really old, right?” he laughs in response to a question about his “younger days”. But the teenage De Ligt really was a fresh and thrilling thing: showered with accolades and comparisons, the youngest player to appear in a major European final, the youngest player to start for the Netherlands since 1931. Looking back at the hype, was it justified? Was it tough to handle? Was it too much?
“There was a lot of things coming at me at a young age,” he says. “A lot of talking. Every little mistake became something really big. But the most important thing is to see the big picture. When you win the Golden Boy [award], that gives some pressure. But as a player, you have to love the pressure. Because it says you are something good. Seeing it this way gives me some space in my head.”
The last three years have been difficult, transitional years for Juventus. Coaches and crowds have come and gone; so too the scudetto, and after a terrible start to the current season Juventus found themselves off the pace again. But a strong run in the new year has put them back in the title race, and a decent run in the Champions League would relieve a little of the pressure on coach Massimiliano Allegri in his second stint at the club.
What is Allegri like as a manager? “His biggest quality is he understands that it doesn’t have to be pretty all the time,” De Ligt says. “It’s all about winning. And that’s also the mentality of Juve. It doesn’t matter if you play well. It’s just about the three points. Step by step, we understand more what he expects from us.”
They make an unlikely match, the golden boy from Amsterdam and the club that has made a virtue of its grizzled, trophy-winning pragmatism. But after a fitful start, things seem to be clicking. Juventus are beginning to find their feet and so, ominously, is De Ligt: recast as the young leader of a dethroned, vengeful champion. Time, perhaps, for both to take the next step.