Why United and Barca are fighting for De Ligt signature

How Matthijs went from ‘slow and out of shape’ to the world’s most in-demand defender

In Summary

•Matthijs was biologically mature at the age of 14

•he Ajax captain delivered a string of sensational performances last season

Matthijs de Ligt during training
Matthijs de Ligt during training

Within the congested factory of footballing talent that is Ajax’s youth academy, it was obvious to most that Matthijs de Ligt would be special when he was just 14 years old.

He already seemed to have a lifetime of football intelligence at his disposal as well as the technical ability and composure to match. De Ligt fast became the standout player in a system littered with quality prospects.

Towering above his classmates and built like a war machine, Ajax’s coaches quickly realised there was no need to waste time in his development.

“Matthijs was biologically mature at the age of 14,” youth coach Ruben Jongkind recently said. “Normally the U15 coach would use him in every match. If you want to stop the strikers from scoring, Matthijs would be in your defence.

“But that is not good for Matthijs. We had to move up him up two years to give him the right stimuli.

“When he was in the U15s he played for the U17s. When he was in the U16s he played for the U19s.

“He would be a centre back in the future but he needed to be challenged over his speed of action. If you play a youth match and you are the best but you play centre back, you play too slowly.

“We put him in midfield. He needed to play with 360 degrees around him and find solutions in small spaces. We knew when he played centre back later he would get into these situations.

“Despite the fact he was very young his movement skills were not up to the level. He didn’t run well. Also his agility, stability and mobility had to improve. We worked hard on that with a specialised plan.”

De Ligt was roughly eight-years-old when his local team in Abcoude, a small town five miles away from Ajax’s stadium, raised the alarm that they had something special.

When a scout raced out of Amsterdam to watch him for the first time there were concerns about his physique and body type though. However, a quick glance down the touchline at his slim and lean father put their scout’s mind at ease according to Dutch writer Henk Spaan.

De Ligt quickly climbed through the junior ranks and reaped the rewards of the club’s overhauled youth system led by Johan Cruyff’s ‘Velvet Revolution’.

He did enough to win a place in the first team squad at just 16, a ridiculous age considering most centre backs don’t usually peak until their late 20s. 

Coaches were instantly impressed with his understanding of the game as he ushered players into positions they should have taken up, while his technical ability was at an outrageous level too.

De Ligt clearly had the tools to thrive in the professional game. He could dribble out from the back, ping cross-field passes to wingers, fizz the ball into midfield and carry out the basics of defending with ease. At the age of 19, he has already passed significant psychological hurdles too. His senior debut for Holland back in 2017 was shambolic as he gifted Bulgaria a goal in a 2-0 defeat in Sofia.

On the night he became the youngest Holland player since 1931, and after just two league starts with Ajax, De Ligt misjudged a long ball and allowed Bulgarian striker Spas Delev to poke the ball into the net.

Fast forward two years and he is now the most coveted central defender in the world after a dream campaign. De Ligt produced a string of perfect performances as he captained Ajax to the Champions League semi-finals and a first Eredivisie title in five years.

This season alone he helped keep 23 clean sheets in 55 appearances and boasted a passing accuracy of 89.3 per cent - a number most midfielders would struggle to hold on to. He also chipped in with seven goals, proving his power and strength is an asset in the opposition’s box too.

There are still some concerns about his body though. His team-mates harshly call him ‘Fatty’ as a nickname and his physical composition prevents some challenges for a defender.

Standing at a moderately tall 6ft 2in, De Ligt has a long torso and relatively short legs which, when combined, affect the speed at which he can turn. In one-on-one situations against the top players that could be a problem. Despite that concern he currently finds himself at the centre of a titanic transfer tussle this summer.

Reports in Spain suggest Barcelona felt they had a deal tied up only for the financial terms to change as De Ligt’s agent, Mino Raiola, smelt some extra commission following his client’s performances at the back end of the season. That delay has allowed other members of Europe’s elite - such as Manchester United and Manchester City - to dive into the race and make absurd financial offers that could be more tempting.

It is easy to see why there is such a rush to get any deal for De Ligt over the line. He can be the nucleus of any team’s defence for the next decade at least.