After completing the signing of Dutch midfielder Frenkie de Jong, FC Barcelona President Josep Maria Bartomeu has reportedly turned his focus to de Jong’s Ajax teammate Matthijs de Ligt. After all, Ajax and Barça have a long relationship, and share a similar style of play, not to mention that he is rumored to desire to follow his friend to the Camp Nou. With Gerard Piqué aging, De Ligt is the perfect target.
Of course, winning the race to the precocious defender won’t be easy: he is one of the most sought-after prospects in football, and Barça will likely have to pay over €70m to secure his signature over the likes of Juventus, Real Madrid, and Manchester United. It’s a steep fee for a 19-year-old, but in my opinion he is absolutely worth it. Here’s why:
The Right Profile
Matthijs de Ligt was born on 12 August, 1999 in Liederdorp, Netherlands (two years younger than me, which makes me question what I’m doing with my life). At age 9 he joined Ajax’s academy from his local club in Abcoude. Though Ajax’s scouts initially worried that he was too slow and out of shape, it didn’t take long for him to prove them wrong.
Since being promoted to the first team in 2016, de Ligt has established himself as an indispensable part of the defense for both Ajax and the Dutch national team, and it’s not hard to see why.
From a stylistic perspective, de Ligt is perfect for Barça. Schooled in the Ajax system, he is as good with his feet as anyone. In the Eredivisie this season, he has a 90.7% pass accuracy rating, right up there with Barça center-backs Gerard Piqué (91.4%) and Clément Lenglet (88.5%). He averages less long balls per game than Piqué or Lenglet (3.2 to 4.3 and 4.4 respectively), but he already has an eye for a splitting pass, and with Ousmane Dembélé and Jordi Alba to feed, it’s easy to see him reaching that level. He even has some dribbling skills. Either way, it’s clear that his technique and comfort on the ball is up to the high standards of Barça.
In defense, he is even more impressive. At 6’2″ (188cm), he is great in the air, winning an average of 3.9 aerial duels per game (more than Piqué’s 3.4 and Lenglet’s 2.1). He can provide solidity on set play defending as well as a heading threat on offensive set plays. Traditionally, Barça has been inconsistent in those areas.
At 1.2, his tackles per league game matches Piqué, though both lag behind Lenglet’s 2. Its his positioning on defense that stands out, though. Proper positioning is key for a defender in the high-line systems Barça and Ajax play, as the style can leave the team vulnerable to counter attacks. Cutting out dangerous passes is vital. When it comes to interceptions, de Ligt averages more per game than either Piqué or Lenglet (1.3 to 1 and 0.6).
Now, the main argument against this comparison is the clear disparity in quality between La Liga and the Eredivisie. “Obviously,” you might say, “he might not fare as well.”
Fortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Like Barça, Ajax competes in the Champion’s League, having drawn or beaten sides like Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. Many of his stats have remained fairly similar, if slightly lower, even against world-class squads, and, in fact, some of them are higher in the UCL than in the Eredivisie, such as successful tackles per game (1.7>1.2).
Up against players like Robert Lewandowski, Thomas Müller, Karim Benzema, and Vinícius Júnior, de Ligt has been forced to make more tackles than usual, and he has been valiant in his weathering of the pressure, even when the whole team’s defending hasn’t been world-class (such as in the 3-3 draw with Bayern); it seems evident that he would slot in perfectly to any top team.
Of course, anyone who knows football knows that the stats only tell half the tale; there is an even bigger reason why I think de Ligt is the player who can lead the Blaugrana defense for at least a decade.
The Right Mentality: From Prospect to Star
Talent is, naturally, crucial to success, but talent alone is far from enough. To be a top player, you need the right mentality: drive, desire, motivation, dedication, confidence, humility, and fortitude. Unfortunately, not every person possesses all of them. There have been countless young prospects that were talented enough to take the world by storm, but ended up fizzling out. From overconfidence and arrogance, as in the case of Ricardo Quaresma, to laziness, like Hatem Ben Arfa, many careers have been derailed by poor attitude, but it’s not always a bad attitude that can be deadly.
As one of the premier footballing academies, La Masia has its share. Most heartbreaking to the Blaugrana faithful is probably Bojan Krkić.
It seems almost delusional to proclaim a “next Messi”, but there was a period of time when Bojan looked to be it. Bojan tore apart every defense he faced during his youth, reportedly scoring 900 goals in the youth system, and even broke Messi’s record as the youngest player to debut for the first team in La Liga. He even bested Real Madrid icon Raúl’s debut season goal tally.
Now, though, at the age of 28, he is plying his trade at Stoke City in the second division of English football. So what happened?
Well, a lot. He was thrust into the pressure-cooker of top flight football too early and wasn’t able to handle it. That’s not a slight on Bojan; as someone who has struggled with anxiety, I know I wouldn’t be able to handle a fraction of that, and the topic of the psychological stress that young players face deserves its own article at the very least.
De Ligt, though, doesn’t seem to suffer from any of that, far as we can tell. He is good under pressure, calm, but he can inspire his team when things are going poorly. It’s no wonder that, despite his age, he already captains Ajax.
As I mentioned in my profile of Samuel Umtiti, Carles Puyol was an irreplaceable part of the greatest club side of all time. It wasn’t just his talent, though. He was a leader through and through. He wasn’t just good at whipping up his team when morale was low, but also at calming them down when they were getting arrogant. Xavi, Iniesta, and Messi have all been worthy captains, but not quite in the Puyol mold.
De Ligt may only be 19, but he has a similar spirit. He’s still a teenager, but he leads like a 30-something veteran. It’s apparent when you watch Ajax. He’s something special.
The Only Problems
Of course, no deal is completely without cons.
The first is that Barça has a few positions that are in dire need of reinforcement. Luis Suárez is 32. Players like Munir El Haddadi, Sandro Ramírez, and Paco Alcácer didn’t work out as backups/successors, and Kevin-Prince Boateng is a short-term solution. Barça B striker Abel Ruiz could be promising, but he’s not ready for the first team yet.
Serbian striker Luka Jović, who is currently lighting up the Bundesliga, has emerged as the main target, while Uruguayan Maxi Gómez has also been linked.
Jordi Alba, the best left-back in the world, is also in need of cover. At this moment, Barça doesn’t have a true replacement in case of fatigue or injury, with Lucas Digne moving to Everton and Barça B’s Juan Miranda not looking up to the task yet. Lyon’s Ferland Mendy is supposedly the main priority at that position.
As Barça has already spent €75m on de Jong, another €70-80m on de Ligt could potentially make it hard to afford those players.
The other problem is that Barça already has multiple top center-backs. Piqué is a clear starter, and will be for at least another season, but at 32, the club is focusing on the future. Thomas Vermaelen is likely to leave in the summer, and Jeison Murillo hasn’t played enough to justify purchasing him after his loan is over, but Barça does have three great younger French center-backs in Samuel Umtiti, Clément Lenglet, and Jean-Clair Todibo (who has reportedly impressed Ernesto Valverde in practice). Balancing the playtime between all of them could be a challenge.
However, Todibo is untested, and unlikely to be a starter any time soon, while Umtiti and Lenglet are both left-footed. Theoretically, a pairing between two lefties could work, but it’s rare. De Ligt is right-footed, though, like Piqué, as well as having experience at the highest level.
Either way, it would be a struggle. Rotation is important, and playtime is key to the development of young players, but at the same time, a proper defense needs chemistry, which can only be gained by playing alongside each other. Even if Barça would play three-at-the-back (which would need a lot of time to make work and could be a defensive liability against big teams), someone could be left out.
All in all, though, I believe he is too good to pass up on. He could easily be the best defender in the world in a few years, and this summer is likely the last chance to sign him. It may seem like a large fee, but there’s no way he doesn’t leave Ajax at the end of the season, and, should he go to Juventus, Bayern Munich, Manchester United, or, worst of all, Paris Saint-Germain or Real Madrid, there would be next to no way they would let him go, assuming he keeps playing well.
Of course, buying a player just so someone else can’t isn’t necessarily the best reason, but when it comes to a player like de Ligt who would be perfect for the club, we should do what it takes to win his signature.