The Dutch wonderkid endured a disastrous debut for his club last week, but to question one of Europe’s best young players after one game has been ridiculous
Just a day after Matthijs de Ligt’s horror-show debut for Juventus against Napoli, the Old Lady were considering bringing in a new centre-back.
A long-term injury to captain Giorgio Chiellini robbed Juve of an irreplaceable pillar of the team, causing them to consider a move for Bayern Munich veteran Jerome Boateng.
Fairweather fans and internet critics were quick to connect the dots between De Ligt’s debut and the interest in Boateng, ignoring the fact that coach Maurizio Sarri had always wanted at least four, if not five, centre-backs at his disposal this campaign.
By the time the transfer window shut two days after De Ligt’s bow, Juventus had decided against signing another stopper. They were content to go into the season with Leonardo Bonucci, Daniele Rugani, Merih Demiral and, of course, their €75 million (£68m/$84m) summer capture from Ajax.
De Ligt has been a soccer professional Juventus have immense faith in – having tracked him for years before eventually buying him. And a poor debut will not faze the freshly-turned 20-year-old, who has already faced a similar situation before.
Back in 2017, he became the youngest ever full debutant for the Netherlands, despite having made just two senior starts at club level. That debut was also a nightmare for the then-17-year-old, who committed two huge mistakes to gift Bulgaria both their goals in a shock 2-0 win.
Having seen enough, manager Danny Blind hauled the teenager off at half-time, but the Dutch Football Association had also seen more than enough from Blind and fired him less than 24 hours later.
De Ligt’s first Juventus game also saw the defender commit a number of uncharacteristic errors as his side threw away a three-goal lead against Napoli in the second half, only to fortuitously run out 4-3 winners in injury time.
The youngster’s marking was poor on the free kicks that led to goals from Kostas Manolas and Giovanni Di Lorenzo, and he was caught round ball-watching on Hirving Lozano’s strike.
De Ligt was panned by the Italian media for his performance – unanimously ranked as the flop of the match. He was also mercilessly teased on social media, with some popular troll accounts even ridiculously labelling him the ‘Dutch Phil Jones’ after the error-prone Manchester United defender.
However, Netherlands manager Ronald Koeman rightly points out that it was just an off-day for the centre-back, who had been an unused substitute in the Old Lady’s first Serie A game this season the previous week at Parma.
De Ligt will win his 18th Netherlands cap on Friday against Germany, lining up to the right of Virgil van Dijk in a formidable centre-back pairing and Koeman believes the fact he was not played in a similar role for Juventus was a big part of his debut disaster.
“What has been a shocker? It was also a question why he didn’t play the first match. Then, he played because somebody else had an injury,” Koeman told reporters.
“He didn’t play well. He had a bad moment with the goal of [Hirving] Lozano. The other two goals were different. It was a free kick that turned in and that’s always hard to defend.
“But yes, he didn’t play the way we want to see. I spoke to Matthijs today after lunch. Sometimes, people take change too easily.
“I still have the newspapers of my first match at Barcelona. It was a disaster. We lost 2-0 and everybody was questioning my arrival.
“But if you ask them now about me I bet it’s different. So, Matthijs has been 20 years old. On the television they take changing to a new club very lightly.
“But I wouldn’t position him left in defence. I would have put [Leonardo] Bonucci there. He has been more experienced.”
Having quickly forgotten about his Netherlands debut to become one of his country’s key players, De Ligt’s shaky start at Juventus has been unlikely to affect the defender in the long run.
He arrived in Turin under the impression that he would be slowly integrated into the first team, having spoken with Sarri about adjusting to a new club and a new country.
Being left on the bench for Juventus’s opening match was not disappointing for De Ligt. It was something he expected, especially with Bonucci and Chiellini having already formed a reliable defensive partnership. As a result, the social media chatter was little more than noise.
“The criticism that comes at you via social media if you do not play one match does not affect me, but I do read it,” he told De Telegraaf. “And to be honest, it surprises me.
“My reserve role just fits into the process of a young boy going to a top European club.”
De Ligt has been not naive, he knows he can improve in all aspects of his game; technically, tactically and physically. It has been a challenge he relishes and something that excited him when he went through his medical at Juventus’s state-of-the-art J Medical facility.
“The medical lasted 90 minutes and they even checked up on my teeth,” he told De Telegraaf.
“The most interesting thing for me was that they could also see how much potential I have physically. The outcome of that was a positive surprise, because there has been a lot of unfulfilled potential still.
“I would rather hear that I still have 60 per cent room for growth than to find out I am already at 90% of my potential. There has been still a lot of room for improvement. It’s now all about fulfilling that potential.
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“If you look at Cristiano Ronaldo and some of the other stars, they are perfect role models. They show me how much I can still gain by looking after my body even better.”
Back in familiar surroundings with the Netherlands, De Ligt will show that his club debut was just a blip.
He will be back to his best soon enough – and those writing off the youngster based on one poor performance are trolls and nothing more.