It’s sometimes easy to forget that Matthijs de Ligt was still a month shy of his 20th birthday when he signed on the dotted line for Juventus this past summer.
By that, I mean it’s not like coming to a brand new country, brand new club, at the age of 19, having to live up to the expectations of a hefty €75 million transfer fee and basically pick up where you left off at the club you grew up at after a dream Champions League run is exactly easy to juggle.
That’s not easy for pretty much every footballer to manage right out of the gate — especially for somebody as young and still relatively green as de Ligt despite what he has already accomplished in such a short period of time with Ajax.
Yet that’s what the first half of the season was for Juventus’ Dutch wonderboy. Then there’s the part about being thrust into the spotlight to take over for Juve’s captain, Giorgio Chiellini, all of days after he went down with a serious knee. Throw in a shoulder injury that he picked up in the first Turin derby of the year — something that he tried to play through before making way in the lineup for Merih Demiral in December — and you’ve got a young player who was doing some soul searching both on and off the field.
Based on how well de Ligt played since he became a regular in the starting lineup again prior to Serie A’’s coronavirus postponement, it looks as though that searching is now over.
And boy was that a welcome sight knowing what Juve were up against prior to the games coming to a halt and what lies ahead if Serie A gets going again this season.
Juventus’ defensive inconsistencies this season are well documented around here. The club’s defensive record this season is not very good, and de Ligt’s early-season struggles have played a rather large role in that. He wasn’t very good in his first couple months as a Juventus player, and the end result of that was a roller coaster ride of a start to life in Turin as he, at the same time, tried to live up to the lofty expectations of a massive transfer fee and the direct replacement for Juve’s injured emotional leader of a captain in Chiellini.
It was so rough of an opening couple of months that de Ligt, who turned 20 years old on Aug. 12, openly spoke about his confidence being “lost” during the October international break — which is something that you don’t exactly hear a whole lot from players, especially one as young as he is. His on-field performances were basically the representation of what his words told us. He was adjusting to a new team, a new league and a different role within a team that is full of veterans and players well-established right where they are.
Those performances, highlighted by plenty of mistakes both marking and more than just couple of handballs in the penalty area, were not good and were completely overshadowing the fact that de Ligt was still learning how to be at a new club for the first time in his football career. He grew up at Ajax both as a player and a person. It was pretty much all he ever really knew at the club level. Now, with a massive transfer fee attached to him wherever he goes and plays, the expectations will follow.
The turning point, so it seems, has been the beginning of the calendar year. After barely playing in December thanks to the shoulder injury he picked up against Torino — he was still called up for virtually every match, for what it’s worth — and the general excellence of Merih Demiral, de Ligt got the kind of break that he needed both physically and mentally.
Since Demiral went down early on against Roma early in Juve’s win at the Stadio Olimpico with a season-ending knee injury, de Ligt has been about as steady at the back as steady can get. And because of it, the now-20-year-old Dutchman is showing that massive potential we all know he has.
Not that we didn’t think that he would turn for the better at some point because he’s just too talented not to snap out of the early-season funk he was in. But what was probably going to be a gradual easing into life in Italy quickly became a trial by fire. And regardless of how talented de Ligt is and how much he still has room to grow as a player,
The de Ligt we saw at the start of 2020 was the de Ligt that we all expected when Juventus paid one of the highest transfer fees in club history to bring the young Dutchman to Turin. The mistakes of 2019 stayed there — and the hope is that it’s where they will remain.
Obviously there’s going to be some kind of shaking off of rust for players no matter when the games actually get restarted again. But if de Ligt can resemble the player that we all saw before the coronavirus suspension of games happened, then that’s one less thing to worry about the next time Juventus takes the field ... whenever that may be.