In the dying embers of arguably the Old Lady’s most important fixture of the campaign against Napoli, Victor Osimhen, his team down 2-1, received a stinging cross from Piotr Zieliński on the right flank, settled the ball brilliantly, and faced Gianluigi Buffon.
Less than 90 seconds on the clock.
Two points hung in the balance for Juventus — and two points for the side from Naples. A result like this, in the home stretch of the season, might mean Champions League or no Champions League, the latter of which could have serious consequences for the club.
Osimhen unleashed a shot.
Then, a flying Dutchman by the name of Matthijs de Ligt, draped on the back of the Nigerian striker without fouling, launched his hulking leg in front of the attempt and blocked it, sending the ball to outer space (I think). The play garnered a high five from Buffon and a double fist-pump followed by a little bro-hug from Giorgio Chiellini. You know you’ve done your job when that’s the reaction.
In an uneven season with some surprising performances, de Ligt has flown a little bit under the radar.
The 21-year-old — yes, that’s really his age! — arrived in Turin with so much fanfare that, for some, he has been regarded as something of a disappointment. Certainly the kid’s first few months on the peninsula were not quite as flawless as they were meant to be, and even when his play has leveled out he’s not the first (or second, or probably third) name that comes to mind when discussing the best central defenders of Serie A.
While all of that may be true, de Ligt has nonetheless been immense for Juventus this season. I’m not going to try to convince anyone that this is a fantastic defense, but when you look at the table it’s a bit of a shock to see that the Bianconeri’s 27 goals conceded are tied for first in the league with Inter Milan. A year ago, Maurizio Sarri’s Juve finished the 38th match of the season with 43 goals allowed, a mark that Andrea Pirlo’s team is sure to beat.
De Ligt has been instrumental this year in keeping this ship from sinking all the way to the bottom of the ocean.
Room to grow
A few times in recent weeks, during which de Ligt has been almost a given in the starting lineup, I’ve seen the Dutchman attempt a few more long balls per game than I remember him attempting when he was first donning the black and white. He’s spotting runs up the middle, up the left and right flanks; he’s trying to help connect the lines a little bit more every time he plays.
Is he suddenly the Kevin De Bruyne of center backs? No. If the eye test doesn’t tell you that, a quick glance at his passing statistics from this year’s fixtures might. He only registers a key pass every now and then, although he is successfully connecting on long balls pretty regularly now.
KDB de Ligt is not. Leonardo Bonucci de Ligt is not. Even so, I like the fact that he’s pushing the envelope a little bit, and I think when, theoretically, the distributing pressure isn’t his to bear at all next year — when this team hopefully has a new midfielder or two — he’ll be able to pick his moments trying to get creative rather than trying to force chances out of the back just because his team can’t do anything through the midfield.
This is also not to say that he’s been the perfect defender this year. There are times when he makes the wrong decision positionally and when he goes a little bit too brazenly into a challenge, or gives away a silly and needless foul. But all in all he calms a lot of nerves when he’s patrolling the backline.
Pillar for the future
The fact that de Ligt hasn’t reached the soaring heights suggested by his play at Ajax might work for Juve’s favor in the end. With the club losing the Scudetto, struggling financially, and repeatedly crashing out of the Champions League, one wouldn’t blame the lad if he started eyeing other clubs at which he might have a better shot at European glory.
Which is not to say there aren’t a million reasons to stay in Turin.
De Ligt is learning from Chiellini and Bonucci at his position, and he’s sharing a locker room with Buffon and Cristiano Ronaldo. If you’re 21 years old hoping to be one of the world’s best, that’s not a bad place to start at all. This is purely conjectural, but from my perspective it feels like de Ligt knows he has plenty to work on, knows there’s plenty of room for improvement, and doesn’t seem like the kind of player ready to jump ship as soon as the storm approaches. (He’s getting paid handsomely, too. That never hurts!)
Everybody knows Juventus are in the thick of a rebuild; the impending loss of the Scudetto brings that point home more than anything else. But the number of lingering questions might even be more frightening than the trophy case. There’s the future of Ronaldo, the future of Paulo Dybala, the financial state of the club, and the managerial situation. There are legitimate, serious concerns with every individual unit on the field. This is a team ostensibly hoping to win the Champions League at some point, yet there’s maybe 0.5 of a true top fullback; the center back unit has as much depth as Joey on Friends; the midfield is the midfield; and the attack is littered with questions.
But if Juventus can hold onto de Ligt, that’s one fantastic player in the starting lineup every single night he’s healthy. If Juventus can hold onto de Ligt and bring back some other players you’d automatically assume they will — Danilo, Juan Cuadrado, Federico Chiesa come first to mind — then there’s a solid core to make this a very good team sooner rather than later.
De Ligt will be a centerpiece, as he already has been this year.