Matthijs De Ligt’s Unexpected Serie A Struggle at Juventus

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When Matthijs De Ligt joined Juventus this summer, he was supposed to be the crown jewel of the Bianconeri ambitions. The 20-year-old represented everything Juventus were looking for in a player. He fits the bill as a ball-playing center-back who would slide just right in with Maurizio Sarri’s possession-dominant style of play. The Dutchman also has a big marketing appeal, having established himself as one of Europe’s biggest stars for the future. Last but not least, Matthijs de Ligt was a hallmark showing that Juventus could officially compete to buy the world’s best players.

However, something went wrong in the process.

De Ligt suffered ever since joining Juventus. Initially, he was benched by the immovable duo Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci. The discontent was there, although his public image remained intact. But when Chiellini suffered a serious injury, the Dutch colleague was instantly promoted to the starting line-up. After warming the bench in the first fixture, De Ligt thus got his opportunity against Napoli. It didn’t go down well for the youngster. New signing on the Partenopei side Hirving Lozano exposed his limits on a couple of occasions, and only Kalidou Koulibaly’s late own-goal took the attention away from Juve’s struggling new star.

After spending years commanding Ajax’s man-to-man defense, Matthijs De Ligt showed some difficulties in adapting to Maurizio Sarri’s zonal marking

Lack of pace

The problems in De Ligt’s game were pretty obvious right from the get-go. Ever since his childhood, De Ligt has been having some weight issues, causing him to lack a bit of pace. This came into light in the Napoli match, where he couldn’t match Lozano’s speed.

Juventus’ zonal marking is also much different from Ajax’s man-to-man defense. The young Dutchman even commented on this, noting that “In Holland, there is a lot of building from the back and defending high up the pitch. Italy is more about zonal marking and defending together.”

Back at Ajax, Matthijs De Ligt was requested to play advanced on the pitch and read the game in order to counter-press the opponent as soon as possible. However, In Italy, he has been struggling with the need of falling back after losing ball possession and relying on a more patient approach to the game.

If he’s having a hard time adapting to Maurizio Sarri, one can’t even imagine how difficult would it have been for him to play under Massimiliano Allegri. The former Juve coach put even more emphasis on dropping back and waiting on the counters. Both Sarri and Allegri use zonal defending. However, the former Napoli manager pushes his defensive line much higher than Allegri, although – differently than in his days with the Partenopei – he is now more careful about pressing wildly.

It also seems that De Ligt is struggling with the speed of Serie A, which is proving to be much tougher to play in than the Eredivisie. This could be the cause for his repeated handballs – it happened three times already! –, something that could be attributed to a learning curve which is proving to be steep for the Dutch youngster.

But while we can surely put some criticism on Matthijs De Ligt’s back, the truth is that even Sarri is yet to fully find his feet at Juventus. The players still don’t look like they’re completely sold on their new manager’s ideas. Cristiano Ronaldo’s childish outbursts didn’t help Maurizio Sarri’s authority in the dressing room either, and such uncertain atmosphere could affect the team’s performance.

Life in Serie A has not been easy so far for Matthijs De Ligt…but scoring a decisive goal against cross-town rivals Torino is the best way to win the Bianconeri fan hearts!

Blast from the past

Looking at Matthijs De Ligt, there’s something recurring in his career: The need to always fight through obstacles to get to the very top. The young defender earned his debut with the Dutch national team at just 17 years of age. That didn’t happen in a random match either, as his first cap with the Oranjes was in a crucial Euro Qualifiers match against Bulgaria.

You may have heard of Jonathan Woodgate and his funny red card received just a couple of minutes into his first game for Real Madrid. De Ligt, however, had a much worse debut than that. The Bulgarians smelled fear and insecurity in this 17-year-old kid tasked with leading his nation to the European Championship. They relentlessly went at him, targeting him with multiple long-range passes, and eventually succeeded. After a horrible misjudgment on his part, Bulgaria’s Spas Delev had a clear goal scoring opportunity, which he used for the best. De Ligt had another insecure intervention in the first half, leading to the second goal  for Bulgaria which ended the Netherlands‘ Euro hopes and Danny Blind’s career as manager of the Dutchies.

Facing a situation like that, 99% of players would mentally fall apart. But De Ligt picked up the dust and went straight into the next season captaining Ajax to the Europa League final. The following year, he was leading his team into knocking out Juventus in a Champions League Quarter Final, staying seconds away from the final. Year after year, he has been facing adversity, but he’s by now well-known for his ability to bounce back.

When you realize how mentally strong he is, would you even doubt that he’ll eventually succeed at Juventus? Early signs are already there: Matthijs De Ligt scored a winner in a derby against Torino. A winning 1-0 goal against the city rivals? That’s one good way to buy the fans’ love. Another one is by putting in an excellent shift throughout the 90 minutes in the following game against Milan, where he completely shut down Krzysztof Piatek to a non-existing factor.

It was Delev when he was 17, and Lozano now that he is 20. De Ligt has had his share of adversaries throughout his career. The only common denominator is that he ultimately came out on top every time, even if it required Koulibaly’s own-goal to confirm it.

Perhaps he has just been unlucky with his hands always finding the most unlikely way to the ball, conceding penalty after penalty? Or, could he be suffering playing with a non-technical midfield, where Miralem Pjanic seems to be the only reliable terminal for his passes from the back? Or maybe, just maybe, he only had to find his groove, and after two great performances the Golden Boy is now ready to become the Golden Leader of the next European generation of talents?

While many questions still need to be answered, one thing is definitely for sure: Matthijs De Ligt looks too talented to fall behind, mentally too strong to collapse, and ultimately, too good to fail.

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