2018 22under22 Countdown – #10: Matthijs de Ligt

“Matthijs de Ligt is an excellent player, already mature for 18-years-old. ‘Good enough is old enough’, they often say. Of course I do not know what options he has, but when I see how he plays for Holland, it does not matter if he leaves the Eredivisie now or in two years, that’s up to him.” – Virgil van Dijk

Date of Birth: August 12, 1999 (18 years old)
Nationality: Dutch
Position: Center Back
Club Appearances: 53 (5 goals, 2 assists)
International Appearances: 5 (2 assists)
EiF Ability Rating: 63

*EiF Ability Rating is a representation of a combination of the player’s current ability and potential ability. It is determined by multiple rounds of voting, and then an addition of the scores given by each judge. The maximum score a player can have is 80.


Following his promotion to the first team, Matthijs de Ligt has been an absolute rock for an incredibly talented, but young Ajax side. He burst on to the scene last season and since then has only gone from strength to strength and has even been rewarded with the captain’s armband — a testament to his ability and leadership qualities. He’s undoubtedly, in my opinion, the best young defender in the world.

Last January I wrote… “Kasper Dolberg, Jairo Riedewald, and Donny Van de Beek headline our current crop of homegrown talent while the likes of Justin Kluivert, Frenkie de Jong, Abdelhak Nouri and Vaclav Cerny are eager to turn their undoubted potential into more first team appearances. However, it may be the youngest of them that has the greatest potential to be a star… 17 year old Matthijs de Ligt.”

So far, that is looking like an astute prediction because while the others have done well for themselves (plus a moment of silence for Appy Nouri) it’s big Matthijs de Ligt who has stood-out the most.

Matthijs de Ligt has slotted seamlessly into the Ajax first team since his promotion last season and after cementing his place in the line up the world started to take notice. His crowning achievement of his young career though had to be leading Ajax to the Europa League Final and playing an absolutely brilliant game despite the 2-0 loss to Manchester United. Since then, MdL has only continued to get better and is quite rightly considered as a top transfer target by nearly every super club in Europe.

Strengths – Technical ability, passing ability, aggression, composure, leadership

Matthijs de Ligt is a prototypical Ajax center half who is supremely poised and confident despite his tender years. A member of the Ajax youth academy since he was 9 years old it is no surprise that he is incredibly comfortable with the ball at his feet. The Ajax system is based on ball possession that requires extremely gifted center backs that can keep the ball and play incisive passes into the midfielders and strikers and that education is clear to see in de Ligt’s game. He routinely plays great passes between the lines and is always available to recirculate the ball and maintain possession. He also possesses the ability to play a long diagonal pass in the mould of former Ajax center backs, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen.

But, what differentiates de Ligt from most other ball-playing center backs is that he couples his brilliant technique with equally superb defensive skills. He is strong, commanding and very aggressive. Given his background as a midfielder in the youth system he is comfortable pushing up high to win the ball back as quickly as possible which is ideal for Ajax’s desire to high-press. He exhibited this skill routinely in the Europa League match against Panathinaikos where they struggled to get out of Ajax’s half due to de Ligt’s intense pressure. Additionally, a key component of de Ligt’s skill set is that he is quite strong, so he does not shy away from physical battles like some other ball-playing center backs (Marc Bartra, John Stones, etc) tend to do.

Finally, arguably is most important trait is that he is a natural leader. Given the captain’s armband in Joel Veltman’s absence, the 18 year old is already seen as a leader for club and country. In a man of the match performance against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal MdL was shouting at and encouraging all of his teammate’s from the off and genuinely looked like he was the captain. He also has that Sergio Ramos-esque trait where if the team isn’t getting the job done, he pushes forward and tries to do something himself (which he often does successfully). All of these factors make MdL one of the most sought after youngsters in the world.

Weaknesses – Speed, height

While Matthijs de Ligt is clearly a brilliant player, he does have some weaknesses. It is hugely advantageous that he is still only 17 because his two main weaknesses – speed and height – could be rectified as he matures. De Ligt is only 6 feet tall or 1.83m and while this is not exactly small it does mean that he loses aerial duals against taller strikers. He tries to work around this by using his strength to jostle into better positions to win the ball, but occasionally there is nothing he can do and the ball cannot be won. His biggest weakness, however, is that he is not very quick, so if he gets caught out of position he lacks the speed of Raphael Varane or Sergio Ramos to get back into position. De Ligt has time on his side and given that he only turned 17 in August he can work on his speed and hopefully grow a couple more inches because if he does so then the sky is the limit for the young defender from Leiderdorp.

Player Comparison – Jan Vertonghen

Vertonghen was developed in the Ajax academy and de Ligt is nearly a carbon copy besides the fact that he is right-footed. Similar athleticism and equally impressive on the ball, Matthijs de Ligt has brought the memories of Vertonghen back to the Arena and if he develops into the type of leader and captain that Vertonghen became, then Ajax will have a real gem on their hands.

Written by Marc Geschwind (@mgesch13)