I can whip up a very, very tasty scratch-made pasta sauce.
The culinary skill, in fact, is a point of pride and something I learned in Torino in 2011 when I was studying abroad and a native Piedmontese man named Walter — I’m not quite sure how a man from Piedmont, Italy, gets a name like “Water,” but then I’m not sure about a lot of things in this universe — had me over to his apartment with his partner Cristina, who was from Argentina, and their daughter Fredericka. Walt cooked a five-course meal. Wearing an apron over slacks and a button-down shirt with leather dress shoes, the man was a wizard in the kitchen.
Anyway, I learned some things from Walt and am able to cook a pretty good sauce, and here’s the thing about the sauce: It’s very yummy on the day that I make it (bottle of wine, eight hours slow-cooking three meets, the Holy Trinity of cooking, etc. etc.), but it’s better the next day, and it’s even better the day after that.
Matthijs de Ligt is the sauce.
Even when he wasn’t perfect through the beginning of the season, he was good. He was better than Daniele Rugani could have been, and he was better than Merih Demiral could have been.
De Ligt’s ascension hasn’t been perfectly linear, but there’s no question he’s playing his best calcio for Juventus right now. Against Atalanta in Serie A, his shoulder was dislocated and set back, and he just soldiered on through it. Instead of taking a game to mend, he started against Atletico Madrid and did things like this. (Sidebar: The pass from João Félix to set up the chance was as beautiful as de Ligt’s tackle was fierce.)
Though the Dutch Baby has taken three months to arrive, he’s finally here. Nobody is surprised, or I guess very few people are surprised. The ephemeral hot takes of de Ligt being overhyped were, as we knew they would turn out to be, wrong.
In hindsight, you can see what Maurizio Sarri and his coaching staff were doing at the very beginning of the season when they rolled out Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini with de Ligt on the bench: the kid — like the sauce — needed time. Apparently the coaching staff is smarter than us — or at least me — and knew this fact. It turned out to be right. De Ligt was awkward at first. He didn’t look confident. His stupid arms earned 349 handballs (stat courtesy of WhoScored).
Then Chiellini tore his ACL, and the Dutch Baby was thrown into the limelight. I don’t want to say capitano’s injury has been a “blessing in disguise,” because anytime you lose arguably your best player (calm down) it’s not a good thing, but the good thing that has indeed come of the situation is that de Ligt has engaged Hulk mode much earlier than he might have.
But nearly 500 words into this groundbreaking piece of journalism, I haven’t really noted anything else that anyone else hasn’t already noted. Of course de Ligt was going to reach Hulk mode at some point. Of course de Ligt playing through a re-located shoulder was amazing. And of course his confidence is on display like it was a year ago at Ajax.
What I think is most interesting about de Ligt at Juventus is the lingering question — one that will surely remain for some time — of exactly why he landed at Juventus.
In September, Barcelona CEO Oscar Grau intimated that the Dutchman chose Juventus because of money more than anything else.
“We made him an offer, but he preferred to go to Juve, where Italian taxation allows him to earn a higher net salary,” Grau said in a press conference.
Indeed, the 20-year-old is earning more than anyone on the Bianconeri not named Cristiano Ronaldo. He’s earning more than Bonucci, who’s better and more experienced at this point. He’s earning more than two times the amount of Chiellini, who, when healthy, is still one of the best center backs in the world.
And just recently over the international break Patrick Kluivert, Barcelona’s academy director, suggested that de Ligt, in fact, “slightly regrets” the move to Turin.
“I didn’t personally try to convince him about joining Barcelona. I only told him about the positive aspects of Barcelona as a club and city,” Kluivert told Mundo Deportivo. “We are obviously talking about a great defender and in the end he made a choice. I think he slightly regrets it now, but that’s the way it is.”
De Ligt responded how you might expect him to respond in that situation, no matter how he truly feels.
But I want to submit a two-part thesis that is, just maybe, vaguely original: First, there is no club in the world at which de Ligt could have evolved into the Dutch Hulk faster than Juventus. Second, I think de Ligt actually likes Juventus, and I think that de Ligt has a chance to make this his team for a decade.
The culture of Juventus is — present, past, and future — the best place for a central defender to learn how to play this game. Even with Andrea Barzagli’s retirement, Chiellini’s injury, and Bonucci’s regression (more of a thing last year, of course), those three are constant presences in the locker room and in the development of the players. Gianluigi Buffon is back in Turin, and one can only surmise what kind of a mentor he is for the youngsters, in particular those on the back line. And the mixture of experience and age meant that, even if Chiellini had stayed healthy, de Ligt was always going to get minutes.
I sincerely believe de Ligt likes being at Juventus, but whether or not he imagines himself as the next legend in black and white, I think there’s a great chance that he continues to grow to such a degree that he becomes the face and DNA of the club.
Juventus is a club with iconic defensive lore; de Ligt is a legend in the making.