Matthijs De Ligt – Ajax’ new sensation

Matthijs De Ligt showed his immense talent against Excelsior yet at the same time reminded spectators that he is only 17 in a five-minute spell last weekend. Mike van Duinen got in behind Ajax’ defense and was hurtling towards Andre Onana before De Ligt snatched the ball from his feet with a timely sliding intervention, before a rushed pass of his led to a Kenny Tete own goal. Ajax has a long lineage of outstanding ball-playing defenders, with De Ligt next on the production line. A man of the match performance in the Europa League last 16 against Kobenhavn and a call-up to the Dutch National Team have been included in the teenager’s repertoire of fine accomplishments.

De Ligt is lanky and broad shouldered, contributing to an imposing physique which allows him to shrug off strikers and win aerial duels. It has also made him dangerous in the opposition box which has led to the youngster already having two goals in the KNVB Beker against Willem II and in the Eredivisie against Heracles. The youngster, who has been at Ajax since the age of nine, has looked calm and accomplished with the first team showing maturity whenever Peter Bosz has called on him. His pass to Anderson Lopez which led to a cross for Kaj Sierhuis to score in the UEFA Youth League against Dynamo Kiev was just an indicator of his technical ability as a ball playing defender.

De Ligt’s mistake against Excelsior was unlike him, as he is a player who usually likes to be thorough with his passing, taking time for his teammates to make the right movements and pick the right pass. His range of passing allows him to be much calmer under pressure as he can ping accurate long balls forward and play intuitive balls into midfielders who drop deep. Sometimes when he is under pressure when receiving the ball, he makes deft feints to shield the ball from forwards pressuring and move the ball into space to pick his pass. He also drives the ball into the midfield line to play it forward. In the Europa League last 16 second-leg against Kobenhavn, he drove into the opposition half to play in Bertrand Traore on the counter for the Chelsea loanee to shoot wide.

His ability to win back the ball higher when Ajax are pressing is one of the most impressive aspects of his game. In the two legs against Kobenhavn, there were instances where he dived in too early and miss-timed the tackle to leave the rest of the defense vulnerable. He mostly times his tackles near the halfway line to perfection to then move the ball into the next wave of an Ajax attack. De Ligt also has an innate sense of positioning during crosses into his box which most defenders his age lack as he regularly repels set-pieces and crosses. There have been a few times this season where De Ligt has moved above Jairo Riedewald in the pecking order for the centre-back role.

De Ligt has also shown incredible character to continue playing with the same confidence after making mistakes, as in the first leg against Kobenhavn Andreas Cornelius managed to get a run on him and leaned over De Ligt to score the winning goal to make it 2-1. After the mistake against Excelsior he covered his face with his shirt but nearly scored a header at the other end almost immediately and made more last man tackles in that game. In the second leg against Kobenhavn, he was more courageous with his passing and was not daunted about facing Cornelius again. He finished the game with an 82% pass succession rate, winning 3 aerial duels, making 2 interceptions and 1 block as Kobenhavn only managed two shots on target. He finished the game against Excelsior with an 81% pass succession rate, won 6/7 aerial duels and made one block.

In an Eredivisie game against Heracles with the scores tied at 1-1, he came in on in the second half to strike a shot from range that was tipped over by Bram Castro. He then scored a header from a corner as Ajax won that game 4-1 as the young defender finished with three shots. He has played his way into the good graces of another former Ajax defender, Danny Blind to be called up to the Dutch National Team after injuries to Virgil van Dijk and Jeffrey Bruma have meant that the Dutch needed more cover in that area. Although a call-up to the U21s would’ve been more fitting, Blind has said that the youngster is with the National Team as a learning experience rather than a playing experience.

De Ligt’s brawny somatotype has meant that he is physically prepared for the challenges that come with first team football but his mental faculties will be important as he has done so much at such a young age. There is a sense around Amsterdam that he could be a future leader in an Ajax team as he plays with such an authority that one has to constantly remind themselves that he is only 17-years-old. He scored his first goal for Ajax a few weeks after his 17th birthday and usurped Heiko Westermann who is 16-years his senior for his first team spot, a few weeks after that.

However, he needs be more assured when not defending in his usual central defensive zone as he tends to rush passes and challenges when he is in the deeper, wider areas. There will be many other mistakes and shortcomings in his game that will come to the fore but he has already shown that he has the mentality to focus on improving his game in the coming years. His ability to play as both a right-sided and left sided-centre back as well as at left back while he can also moonlight as a midfielder will be pivotal in him gaining more gametime in his teens. De Ligt has received a lot of praise from his manager at Ajax, Peter Bosz as well as Mister Ajax, Sjaak Swart.

“While you still see the youthfulness of other talents, which is quite logical, I think he exudes a lot of maturity. That’s pretty special, especially for a central defender,” said Bosz to Voetbal International, earlier this month.

“You can put De Ligt in Ajax 1, immediately, no doubt about it. He reminds me of Johnny Heitinga, when he broke through as a kid. He was brutal in the field in a good way and can be a big one, ” said Swart to the same news outlet.

De Ligt completes 42 passes per game at a success rate of 84% with three accurate long balls while he makes 1 tackle, 1 interception and 4 clearances per game as well as winning 2 aerial duels per game according to WhoScored. He makes 4 defensive actions per game and wins an astounding 63% of his duels in the Eredivisie while completing 86% of his passes while he completes 9 defensive actions and wins 52% of his duels in the Europa League according to Squawka. His good performances of late have been testament to the way Ajax have managed him this season.

“Every week the coaches look at which team I can play my best matches: Jong Ajax or Ajax 1. That gives me a good variety and I just try to play anywhere as good as possible,” said De Ligt to Voetbal International.

De Ligt has been promoted from the Oranje U19s to the National Team at an alarming rate with him training with Danny Blind and his side for the World Cup Qualifier against Bulgaria and the Friendly against Italy. He will continue to play with the Ajax U19s, Jong Ajax and the first team for the rest of this season as he has moved up the pecking order to Ajax’ third choice centre-back. The grace with which he has produced authoritative performances has been exciting and if he can continue on the same trajectory, he could reach the same level of Ajax centre-back alumni, Thomas Vermaelen, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. De Ligt will only turn 18 in August but has already shown that he is capable of being an Ajax stalwart for years to come.