Life comes at you fast especially if you’re Matthijs De Ligt. From winning the best player of the season award in the Eredivise to struggling for decent performances with new side Juventus, it would appear the defender’s struggles in the Serie A and even on the international scene are more mental than they are physical. The defender has endured an error-strewn season to date but his international manager says small changes at club level could make the difference.
The 20-year-old now appears to be feeling the burden of his enormous price tag. The Dutch defender was snapped up by Juventus this summer for a fee close to £70m after his stunning performances for Ajax. De Ligt was one of the best centre-backs in world football during 2018/19, captaining Ajax on their memorable run to the Champions League semi-final.
However, since he swapped the red and white of the Dutch champions for the famous black and white of the Bianconeri, mistakes have crept into his game on an alarmingly regular basis.
During the Derby d’Italia, the defender carelessly gave away a penalty against Inter Milan, which Lautaro Martinez converted. Luckily for him, Gonzalo Higuain scored a late winner to bail him out.
And his Dutch national teammates helped bail him out once again against Northern Ireland on Thursday.
Ronald Koeman’s side were staring down the barrel of a humiliating defeat when Josh Magennis put the spirited visitors 1-0 up with 15 minutes to go. Once again, De Ligt was the man heavily responsible for the goal, committing two errors in little or no time. Netherlands went on to win the game 3-1 but De Ligt would not have been happy about him being the chief culprit once more.
It was the latest in a series of errors the 20-year-old defender has made this term, but Koeman has backed De Ligt to come good.
“It is clear that he has to make a change in the way he plays at his club,” Koeman told reporters.
“That can sometimes be at the expense of the confidence of a player, but Matthijs gets full confidence from us, and I am sure that in the end he will only get better.”
Only recently did fellow Dutchman Van Dijk openly back De Ligt to overcome his shaky start at Juventus and now taking a closer look at Koeman’s statements, It would appear all is still quite in good hands regarding De Ligt’s growing career.
Despite the big money coughed out by Juventus for De Ligt’s services, the reality is that he moved from a different League and generally a little time should be afforded for transition. Also, the extra pressure from holding the reputation as the world’s most expensive defender is enough to shake any player, let alone a player aged 20 in the growing stages of his career.
Moreso, the different style of football played in his former League (Eredivise) is much different when compared to the style of play in the Serie A. The Eredivise is one that generally requires energy and athleticism compared to the Serie A which leans more on the tactical acumen and intelligence off the ball. It is why most players develop like fine wine in the Serie A and get better as they age. Bonucci (aged 32) and Chiellini (aged 35) are perfect defenders to suit this narrative and we can also see how easy it has been for Diego Godin (aged 33) to settle in at the heart of the Inter defence as well.
Hence, it would be unfair to lash out premature criticism at the 20-year-old who ideally is not yet the finished article and is still in a development phase of his career. The Serie A is one league that requires some test of time in order for players to realize their full potential. There’s no hack about that and De Ligt can only get better with time. When Koeman suggested the former Ajax captain must alter his gameplay, he did mean De Ligt should focus more on the technical side of things as the style of play in Italy is generally different than it is in Netherlands.
Time is still on his side to replicate his feats at Ajax with new club Juventus. Playing alongside an experienced defender like Bonucci will only help speed up the process and the same effect will help on the international scene playing alongside Virgil Van Dijk. De Ligt might have cost a lot of mistakes but thankfully Juventus are still top of the Serie A. When the baptism period is over for the youngster, we can expect to see fully confident performances that would justify why a host of European clubs battled Juventus for his services.