Ajax vs Juventus: Meet Matthijs de Ligt, the best young defender on the planet and the future of Dutch football

Paul Wilkes
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Ajax vs Juventus: Meet Matthijs de Ligt, the best young defender on the planet and the future of Dutch football

As a youngster, Matthijs de Ligt would leave his house in Abcoude and take a short train ride to the Amsterdam Arena, where he would watch his beloved Ajax swagger to numerous Eredivisie titles and dream of one day pulling on the club’s famous red and white jersey himself.

Little did the junior de Ligt know that just a few short years later, he would be the captain of the club he had idolised since his youngest years, as well as one of the most highly-rated defenders in the world.

“I moved close to Amsterdam, so it’s normal to be a fan of Ajax,” De Ligt recalls, in an exclusive interview with The Independent. “Me and my friends would watch the games and of course they would win.”

Ajax won four consecutive Eredivisie titles between 2010 and 2014, although they haven’t obtained the league since, as the club currently sit level on points with PSV Eindhoven at the top and only five games remain.

This week De Ligt will captain his side against Juventus in the quarter-final of the Champions League - an incredible feat for a 19-year-old – with added expectation as a local lad.

“There’s always pressure especially if you play for a team like Ajax. I think pressure is good for a player. The biggest teams always have pressure and it’s something you have to deal with. For me, it’s an honour to play for Ajax and deal with the pressure that comes with it.”

The world’s best clubs are circling for the centre-back’s signature this summer with Barcelona, Manchester City, Liverpool and Juventus all heavily linked in recent months.

De Ligt’s ability to play out from the back and organise his fellow teammates are valuable commodities in a time when the lack of quality defenders has been highlighted.

“As a defender, it’s really important to communicate with the players in front of you and next to you. It makes it easier for yourself, if you talk to each other then they can maybe break a line for the striker or other small details, it can make a really big difference.”

So, what other attributes does De Ligt believe he possesses that will enable him to continue his ascent to the top of the game?

“Reading of the game,” he answers after a momentary pause. “That’s something that’s good but can always be better with experience of playing matches and different situations that you haven’t witnessed before.”

Ajax defender Matthijs de Ligt (AFP/Getty)

Ajax’s legendary youth system has made an important contribution to their successful season, with De Ligt, Donny van de Beek and Barcelona-bound Frenkie de Jong all promoted from the reserve side in recent years.

“I think around the age of 16, I knew that I could make it. It wasn’t easy, but I knew that I had the ability to become a player. You then have to take it step-by-step to the seniors and then you see that you can reach professional football.”

Manager Erik ten Hag added experience last summer with Daley Blind returning from Manchester United and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar back for a second spell following nine years away at Real Madrid, Milan and Schalke.

“It’s nice, but not only guys who played for Ajax before. We have bought (Dusan) Tadic, who is experienced at Southampton. Of course, it’s nice when players that played for the club when they were young comeback, but it’s also nice to have others that can be here.”

Dusan Tadic has excelled for Ajax this season (AFP/Getty)

Tadic has had an incredible campaign with 20 goals and 10 assists, as he has demonstrated his flexibility by operating on the left-wing or in a ‘false nine’ role as he did in the 4-1 win over Real Madrid.

Juventus will offer De Ligt another opportunity to demonstrate his ability on the world stage, with the defender’s first introduction a memorable occasion for all the wrong reasons.

It’s two years since De Ligt made his international debut, where his errors cost the Netherlands a 2-0 defeat to Bulgaria and the 17-year-old was replaced at half-time by coach Danny Blind.

“But for me, it was like, ‘I’m going to show everyone what I can do!’” admits De Ligt. “That was my main motivation at the time. I also had a lot of faith from the trainer and the players, so it was part of showing everybody that I can do it.”

The teenager has formed a fine partnership with Virgil van Dijk (Getty)

It was certainly a defining moment that illustrated his mental strength.

“I don’t know if you can call it a strong mentality. I knew what was best for me at that moment. I had confidence in myself. It wasn’t a problem, of course you want to play good at the time and especially in such a big game, it just wasn’t my day.”

Liverpool are also in the Champions League last eight and De Ligt has witnessed first-hand the capability of the world’s most expensive defender Virgil van Dijk.

“He is nice, a big character. He knows what he wants, and he is a good player. He is really calm. He doesn’t panic on the pitch. He is a leader, talks a lot and communicates with a lot of players.”

Van Dijk has been exceptional and his influence on his fellow teammates has extended to the national side.

“He helps players especially younger players like me. He has a good character and shows that week after week. He is doing really well at Liverpool. He talks about what he can do and how he can help me. Off the pitch, he talks about making (the right) choices.”