The Rise of Matthijs de Ligt

Matthijs de Ligt has grown from a youth product into a potential world class defender. What has happened along the way to get where he is now?

It was the 16th of August 2016. Ajax was playing FK Rostov in the Champions League and I got tickets together with a friend. Just a few weeks earlier it was my birthday, and 17-year-old me had finally gathered enough money to buy the newest Ajax home jersey. It was a beautiful day and the fan shop was crowded. I searched for my size and got in line. The lady behind the counter asked me what name and number I’d like, and I answered: ‘De Ligt, number 36’. She looked at me confused and the man behind me in line said that I had a remarkable amount of trust in him. I just smiled.

At that time, Matthijs de Ligt played in the U21’s. 288 days later, on the 24th of May 2017, the 17-year-old Matthijs de Ligt started in the Europa League final against Manchester United. Matthijs went from playing with Davinson Sánchez at the back against the likes of Rogier Krohne (now playing for Schalke U23’s, 30 years old) and Issa Kallon (now playing for SC Cambuur, recently got community service for having sexual intercourse with a 14-year-old), to playing with Davinson against Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial. But how did he rise through the ranks so quickly? Let’s have a look at Matthijs de Ligt’s meteoric growth.

Start of his career and mentality
Let’s start from the beginning. Matthijs de Ligt was born on the 12th of August 1999 in a hospital in Leiderdorp, close to Leiden. Matthijs and his family shortly after that moved to Abcoude, a town just south of Amsterdam. In an interview with Ajax Showtime, Matthijs’ father told a lot about Matthijs as a kid: ‘When he turned 5, he started playing tennis and he did this very well. He was the best of the club in no-time. Then he went to a friend of his to football training once and he was sold. He wanted to start playing football immediately. He wasn’t that into football until he turned 6 years old.’. Matthijs played for FC Abcoude for 3 years. He was scouted by Ajax when he played in the second team of the U11’s. There was some doubt among the scouts at first though, as he was a little bit heavier than the others. However, they took the risk as they saw that he had the talent.

In the same interview with Ajax Showtime, Frank de Ligt went more in-depth about Matthijs’ character: ‘He doesn’t like all the attention. When he has time to himself, he will play FIFA or watch a show on Netflix. He also goes to his girlfriend a few times a week. He isn’t the type of character who wants to hang out with everyone and would rather spend the time alone. His mom even had to push him to get his driver’s licence, as Matthijs said driving lessons wouldn’t fit into his schedule.’. His agent Barry Hulshoff told Ajax Showtime that Matthijs’ intrinsic motivation is wonderful: ‘His mind is constantly occupied with what he needs to be a good defender. He always gives 100% and he sets targets for himself, which he will accomplish if there are no injury problems.’.

The first time
If I recall correctly, the first I saw of Matthijs was a YouTube video uploaded to the official Ajax YouTube channel. Matthijs played as a midfielder back then and scored a goal that was very similar to a goal that Viktor Fischer scored against NEC back in 2013. The thing that stood out to me though and why I remember this video is a comment that someone left under the video. Someone said that he was very talented, and that he could be the next Rafael van der Vaart. This appealed to me, as I was a very big fan of van der Vaart and his playstyle.

This is when I started following Matthijs. He scored this goal when he was in the second team of the U15’s. He did well for them in midfield, but it was his trainer in the U17’s who took him back a line. Due to his excellent vision, his outstanding physique and his great passing ability he made a very good central defender. It was also in this team when I saw Matthijs play in real life for the first time. Together with a friend, I got tickets to the Future Cup in 2015. This was the first time that Matthijs would play in the Future Cup. From the first moment on, I was impressed by him. As a 15-year-old, he could physically dominate against the 16- and 17-year-olds at the tournament. Ajax, unfortunately, lost in the final after penalties, with Donyell Malen and Jorg Ooievaar missing their penalties. Matthijs de Ligt was the player of the tournament.

Personal awards
I really enjoyed the Future Cup and the U17’s squad. That is why I decided to go to the Copa Amsterdam. This tournament is played by the U19’s, and Matthijs was added to the roster for the tournament. Ajax made it all the way to the final again but lost on penalties again. The one moment I vividly remember is the confidence I had in Matthijs scoring his penalty. I had seen him perform so well against 18-year-olds, and I just knew he would score his penalty in the final. I was wrong. Matthijs missed and Ajax lost the final. However, Matthijs again got the award for player of the tournament. As a 15-year-old he won player of the tournament at a tournament for U17’s and a tournament for U19’s. I just knew that he was going to be a great player.  In the following year, Matthijs won the league with the U19’s and got the award for biggest talent at the club. He got this award in June 2016. Two months later is where my story comes in. This is when I bought his shirt. From that moment on, Matthijs went through a meteoric development.

The season of…
The season 2016/2017 was a very good season for Matthijs. He started out in Ajax U21, but soon moved on to the first team. He was included in the first team in preseason already, when Ajax played in the Champions League qualifiers, but he didn’t get any minutes yet. His first minutes came in a cup game against Willem II. And in true Ajax debutant fashion, Matthijs scored. After that things went quickly. I’m pretty sure everyone has heard of Ajax’ Europa League run last season. Matthijs de Ligt became the youngest player ever to play in an European final, in a squad with an average age under 23. Matthijs played a total of 11 Eredivisie games and 9 Europa League games, wherein he got an average grade of 7.03. To compare, Hakim Ziyech was Ajax’ best player with an average grade of 7.55. For Matthijs it was the season of his breakthrough, the season of the European run, but also the season of his debut for the national team. This wasn’t quite the success though. He made his debut against Bulgaria, made a big mistake which resulted in a goal and was substituted at halftime. Many people thought that this would stagnate his development, but Matthijs learned from it and has since put in steady performances for the national team.

To summarise, Matthijs de Ligt has undergone an amazing development and according to the SciSkill database he has the potential to become even better than the two best defenders in the world right now (according to FIFPro Team Of The Year), Sergio Ramos and Leonardo Bonucci. He even has taken over the captain’s armband from Joël Veltman this season. I really hope that I can see Matthijs de Ligt shine in an Ajax shirt for at least one more season, but with the performances he has been putting in recently, I’m afraid it will be impossible to keep him. This will be the end of the article, although it only really is the beginning of a very bright career for Matthijs de Ligt. For now, I will leave you with one of the best videos I have ever seen. Matthijs de Ligt celebrating with the Ajax fans after the Europa League victory. Enjoy.

 

Stats from whoscored.comCover: ProShots