Matthijs de Ligt: Believe the hype
Image: Gonzo Gooner, CC BY 3.0
Ajax's talent factory is booming once more. Matthijs de Ligt’s Monday evening inauguration as the 2018 Golden Boy highlights that the club’s fabled academy system still produces more than its share of European football's brightest talent.
De Ligt became the first defender to win the prestigious award, fending off competition from the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Justin Kluivert.
The 19-year-old performs at a consistently high level for Ajax. His reward? Becoming the youngest captain in Godzonen history. He's also established himself as a regular in Ronald Koeman’s Netherlands’ side. It's how we all dream our careers will start.
The Golden Boy award is the cherry on the cake for de Ligt. Decided by European football journalists, it reveals how highly regarded the defender is across the continent. Previous winners include Kylian Mbappe, Sergio Aguero and Lionel Messi. The Dutchman is in good company.
De Ligt is also the first winner since Raheem Sterling in 2014 to not transfer clubs mid-season. Ajax have done well to keep him until now but interest is growing from Europe’s super clubs. Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Juventus have all been strongly linked.
So, what has the starlet done to become one of the most coveted players in Europe?
Bred in Ajax’s youth academy, de Ligt was raised on the “Total Football” principle so closely associated with the club since the 1960s. This is a recognisable brand of football typified by creativity, fluidity and attack-minded play. Through this education, de Ligt developed into a multi-faceted footballer, strong defensively but also comfortable in possession and adept at instigating attacks. He is a complete modern centre-back.
Quiet simplicity is key to his game. The Dutchman showcases a wide passing range but, in keeping with Ajax’s playing style, commonly opts for shorter, more effective passes. He boasts a 92.4% pass completion rate in the Eredivisie this season.
The teenager uses his brain as often as his burgeoning strength. The 6' 1" centre-back rarely slides into tackles. He wins the ball while on his feet and with limited contact. He has been vital to Ajax’s 17 clean sheets in all competitions this season. It's easy to forget that he doesn’t turn 20 until August 2019. His admirers have good reason to show intrigue.
Historically, players who thrive in the Eredivisie are treated with a hint of scepticism when they make the move to higher-profile leagues. There is a nagging belief the Dutch competition plays to a lower standard, making it easier to succeed there. When de Ligt inevitably makes the move to one of the European powerhouses, he'll have to prove himself again.
That said, he's already proven his capability to deliver on the highest stage, developing a formidable partnership alongside Virgil van Dijk in the Dutch national side that saw off Germany and France to reach the UEFA Nations League semi-finals.
Further, the teenager's meteoric rise coincides with Ajax’s first season in the Champions League group stage since 2014/15. De Ligt featured in five games as his side went unbeaten in Group E. Erik ten Hag's squad meet Real Madrid in the Round of 16. Once again, De Ligt will be in the shop window.
Even at his tender age, he's demonstrated the qualities to be a world-class centre-back for years to come. The Golden Boy crown will inevitably add further pressure on club chairman Edwin van der Sar to sell. The evidence suggests De Ligt can handle the hype. After all, he’s taken it in his stride so far.