London: When you play for a team as beautiful to watch as Ajax, there is always the need for a player who excels at the ugly side of things. Not the fancy flicks and the neat tricks, but the blocks and the bumps, the headers and the thumps. That player is Matthijs de Ligt.
At 19 years old, there should be a boy, but he has matured faster than most. It was a performance which raises the stakes in the pursuit of one of Europe’s most in-demand players, because as good as Ajax are, they had to cling on in London and De Ligt was the reassuring presence they drew strength from.
It had been widely expected De Ligt would follow his young Ajax teammate Frenkie de Jong to Barcelona. That the Ajax boy would want to follow in the footsteps of an Ajax giant, Johan Cruyff, swapping Amsterdam for the capital of Catalonia.
It would be dangerous to assume anything. He has signed no contracts, there is no verbal agreement, he has not promised anyone anything. In his own words, he has “not made up his mind yet”.
The door remains open and every top Premier League club should be trying to wedge it open to make their sales pitch.
De Ligt is probably — although these things are difficult to quantify — the best 19-year-old defensive player in the world, a ball-playing centre-back who, mercifully in the modern era, does not believe he is a defender in name only.
De Ligt is not a frustrated midfielder, even if he can pass like one. He is a centre-back who excels thanks to the array of talent around him and who never forgets his primary objective, all the unpleasant stuff with head, elbows, knees and toes. He is the blue-eyed, blond-haired Ajax boy with the chest of a nightclub bouncer, the square chin of a policeman and the bravery of a solider. There is very little not to like when you have a player sitting at the heart of the side who can split a defence at one end and be the last line of one at the other.
At one point in the first half, as Spurs teetered on the brink of being overrun, De Ligt popped up dribbling into the opposition area. He really should not have been there, but this is Ajax. He was only deprived of a shot by an excellent last-ditch tackle from Danny Rose.
“It’s a fantastic achievement,” said Ajax coach Erik Ten Hag. “We fought like lions. We are halfway there and in good shape. The willpower was very nice to see.
“We can play football in different styles. We can defend very well. We have a team that works together really well. They can fight together really well.”
When Ajax were on top, De Ligt stood watch like a sentry, but when the pressure built, he was the organiser and motivator. When Lucas Moura built up a head of steam, it was Ajax’s young captain who either held him up or forced him wide enough to reduce the threat. On one occasion, there was a gentle brush with his thigh, to send Moura off balance, at the same time as he held both hands up to say he had stopped competing for the ball. Clever defending against a far faster opponent.
At the start of the second half, as the space opened up for Dele Alli to fire a shot into the bottom corner, it was De Ligt who threw himself in the way, the block sending Ajax away on a counter-attack that should have ended with Hakim Ziyech sending David Neres in on goal. Do the basics and do them well — the first line, of the first chapter of the centre-back’s guide.
The fact he is Ajax’s captain while still a teenager tells you something else too. De Ligt is a “franchise player”, a phrase borrowed from American football, but one which means he could be the face of a football club for the next decade. If Manchester United, for example, want to completely rebuild their defence this summer, the foundation stone could well be the young man from Leiderdorp.
— The Telegraph Group Ltd, London