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Ajax getting to the semi-finals of last season’s Champions League was surprising. Their star youngsters immediately being preyed upon by Europe’s mega-clubs was less so.
Frenkie de Jong’s move to Barcelona felt like a stylistic and, more than that, spiritual fit, but Matthijs de Ligt has been bouncing around the clubs in the rumour mill. An agreement with Juventus seems to have been made, although plenty of other big clubs were sniffing around him too.
The 19-year-old is/was in high demand for good reason. Firstly, he’s captain of Ajax at 19. That says an incredible amount about both his ability as well as his mentality. He’s also an incredible threat in the air, as highlighted in this video I worked on (behind the scenes) in the day job with Football Whispers.
BUT there was something that troubled me about him when I was (usually only casually) watching him this season. He’s kinda bulky.
Now, I don’t mean fat. I mean that, in another life, a person of De Ligt’s build could easily be playing rugby. (If he was English, maybe he would be). Defenders (in football) require a certain amount of dexterity to move themselves around. Little forwards with low centres of gravity have an advantage in their agility, and defenders need to be able to deal with this. De Ligt always seemed a little too heavy on his feet for this, which worried me.
His tackle win percentage appeared to support this assumption too. He only attempted 1.45 tackles per 90 minutes in the Eredivisie last season, which isn’t tons, but more importantly only had a 70.1% success rate. His stats were virtually identical last season too. Add in fouls, of which he averaged 0.67 per game (though not all of them via attempted tackles), and this success rate gets even worse.
For reference, a player who he’s briefly compared to in the video, Harry Maguire, attempted 1.3 tackles per 90 minutes in the league last season with a far greater success rate of 83.7%.
I’d never had the chance to sit down and watch De Ligt in detail though so now, with his transfer apparently imminent, seemed like a good time.
I was pleasantly surprised, then, when I came to watch him back in the Netherlands vs Portugal and saw things like this. [Netherlands are in blue, De Ligt is playing as the RCB starting the gif close to the far sideline. If it takes a while to load in the email, here’s a link you can try, and let me know what does/doesn’t work]
That’s the movement of a man whose body can certainly keep up with his mind, as he (understandably) errs on whether to push up or stay where he is. Later in the clip, you also get a taste of his concentration, as he checks over his shoulder a number of times to keep in his mind where the forward is. This kind of body control was on show a number of times throughout the match.
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Granted, there are also times when he looks a little clumsy, although the below example is more to do with getting his body square to Lucas than his footwork not coping with his size. [again, a link here if you need one]
Where do all the fouls and failed tackles come from then?
From watching a bunch of clips, some of it appears to be that he gets pulled up on relatively minor grappling incidents which (I think) smaller players might get away with.
Others come from him rushing up to meet a player who is receiving the ball and trying to tackle them when his starting position was too far away. He’s making up a lot of ground in these incidents (maybe from a deep starting position because he’s slow at turning?) and a better decision might be to hold back a little once he gets near to the opposing player.
Sure, he’s still a little bulky. He has better feet than a lot of people his size, but his centre of gravity still seems pretty high which makes it hard to push off to change direction, among other things. Some of this might be his age: I think that, quite frequently, we see young players who haven’t quite found the right body type for their position and role just yet. Often it’s youngsters that could do with bulking up a little, but sometimes players need to get to know their body’s capabilities, or the muscle is all there but it’s not quite ideally distributed.
Given that slow and clunky footwork seems less of a problem than I originally feared, spending lots of money on De Ligt seems a much safer bet. I’m not a coach, but I imagine that decision-making is something that’s easier to fine-tune than footwork, particularly in this case, where saying ‘just dial it back a bit’ could make a meaningful difference. On that front, he can take a bit of inspiration from compatriot Virgil van Dijk, whose temperament is less of an aggressive one.
In some ways, it’ll be a shame if De Ligt really does go to Juve, a team who don’t seem to be regularly challenged. It would’ve been a lot more interesting to see him at Manchester United, with all of the troubles that they have in their team.
So, in sum: no, De Ligt is not too bulky; yes, I had fair reason to be concerned and look into it. Congratulations to young Matthijs on the 2019/20 Serie A title… (if we jinx it now then we might get a proper title race).
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