How Bad Has Matthijs de Ligt's 1st Season at Juventus Really Been?

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportMarch 5, 2020

LYON, FRANCE - FEBRUARY 26: (BILD ZEITUNG OUT) Matthijs de Ligt of Juventus Looks on during the UEFA Champions League round of 16 first leg match between Olympique Lyon and Juventus at Parc Olympique on February 26, 2020 in Lyon, France. (Photo by Harry Langer/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)
DeFodi Images/Getty Images

Not for the first time this season, Matthijs de Ligt was trending on Twitter. But this time, it was nothing to do with a shaky performance.

After team-mate Alex Sandro accidentally trod on his head in the first half of Juventus' recent UEFA Champions League clash with Lyon, De Ligt was left with blood streaming down the right side of his face. Images of the blood-splattered youngster getting patched up at the side of the pitch quickly proliferated on social media. To make matters worse, Lyon midfielder Lucas Tousart scored the only goal of the game while he was off the field receiving treatment.

The 1-0 defeat in the round-of-16 first leg was a bitter disappointment for Juventus, for whom Champions League success is this season's primary objective, but in the postgame analysis, De Ligt was spared criticism.

The focus instead fell on manager Maurizio Sarri's complaints about his team's slow passing and an argument between Leonardo Bonucci and Blaise Matuidi that took place during the warm-up, while the Italian sports newspapers reserved their most cutting remarks for Miralem Pjanic, Rodrigo Bentancur and Juan Cuadrado.

It is an indication of the difficulties that De Ligt has already encountered in his fledgling stint in Turin that being absolved of blame for the Lyon result represented a form of progress. Because up to now, his adaptation to life in Serie A has been far from plain sailing.

LYON, FRANCE - FEBRUARY 26: Matthijs de Ligt of Juventus is bleeding during the UEFA Champions League round of 16 first leg match between Olympique Lyonnais (OL) and Juventus at Groupama Stadium on February 26, 2020 in Decines near Lyon, France. (Photo by
Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

De Ligt's problems started on August 30, a little over a month on from his €75 million transfer from Ajax, when Juve's veteran captain Giorgio Chiellini suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury in training that would keep him out of action for close to six months.

Juve's plan had been to ease their new recruit into action gently, and De Ligt himself seemed aware of the need to take a slower approach to life in Italy, posting on Instagram that he was taking things "step by step." Chiellini's injury forced Sarri to change tack. De Ligt found himself thrust straight into the starting XI—and straight into the firing line.

His debut performance in a 4-3 home win over Napoli on August 31 was a calamity, and he continued to encounter problems over the weeks that followed, conceding penalties for handballs in a 2-1 win at Inter Milan and a 1-1 draw at Lecce.

Although he scored the winner in his first derby against Torino in November, an underwhelming display in Juve's 3-1 loss at Lazio in early December cost him his place in the team. He started five successive matches on the bench around the turn of the year and did not return to the starting lineup until Merih Demiral, who had taken his place, was struck down by a knee injury in mid-January.

In an October interview with Fox Sports Netherlands, the 20-year-old said he no longer felt "invincible" in the way that he had at Ajax and admitted that he could not say why he was underperforming, vowing simply to "continue to work, to do my best and to try to learn from my team-mates."

As one of the emblems of Ajax's stunning run to the Champions League semi-finals last season, De Ligt arrived in northern Italy accompanied by a huge sense of expectation that his massive transfer fee only served to inflate. While some might have questioned the wisdom of the move after he faltered on his first outings, those who have been in his shoes knew it was best to reserve judgement.

A De Ligt goal helped Ajax knock Juventus out of the Champions League last season
A De Ligt goal helped Ajax knock Juventus out of the Champions League last seasonMichael Steele/Getty Images

"He had more difficulties at the beginning than people expected," former Juventus defender Jonathan Zebina told Bleacher Report. "But how old is he, 20? He's gone in at the deep end, so it strikes me as completely normal. What isn't normal is that people expected extraordinary things from him straight away."

On top of the usual process of adaptation that a player must observe when they move to a new country, De Ligt has had to contend with the fact that Sarri's arrival as head coach prompted an overhaul of the way that Juventus defend. Where Juve used a man-oriented marking system at set pieces under Massimiliano Allegri, Sarri has switched to a strategy of zonal marking. And the shift has not been without complications.

"Juventus have let in a lot of goals from corners because they're using zonal marking rather than traditional, man-to-man marking, which was a big part of Allegri's defensive strategy," explained Filippo Conticello from La Gazzetta dello Sport. "The players have been making a lot of mistakes, and in the middle of all these defensive problems, you find De Ligt. I don't think it's all his responsibility."

De Ligt has also encountered a different set of expectations for when he is on the ball compared to his time at Ajax. While Sarri has, as expected, turned Juventus into more of a passing team than they were under Allegri—with average possession per game and average number of short passes per game both climbing between last season and this—De Ligt is still seeing much less of the ball than he did in Amsterdam.

In the Eredivisie last season, he would complete an average of 67.2 passes per game. In Serie A, that figure has fallen to 53. For a player who recently revealed to the UEFA website that he played as a playmaker in the Ajax youth teams until the age of 15, his more limited involvement in build-up play will take some getting used to.

Back home in the Netherlands, there has been conjecture as to whether Italy was even the right country for De Ligt in the first place, with influential television pundit Johan Derksen declaring in December that the former Ajax captain "chose the wrong club."

Very few Dutch centre-backs have enjoyed success in Serie A. To illustrate the point, in the past 25 years, the only central defender to have gone to a major tournament with the Netherlands while on the books of an Italian club was Jaap Stam, who was a Lazio player when he reached the semi-finals with the Oranje at Euro 2004.

Matthijs de Ligt of Holland during the UEFA EURO 2020 qualifier group C qualifying match between The Netherlands and Estonia at the Johan Cruijff Arena on November 19, 2019 in Amsterdam, The Netherlands(Photo by ANP Sport via Getty Images)
ANP Sport/Getty Images

"In Holland, the defender is the first stage of the attack," Jan-Hermen de Bruijn, editor-in-chief of Dutch football magazine ELF Voetbal, told Bleacher Report. "In Italy, a defender is a defender, which is a completely different concept.

"In Holland, every attack starts with six or seven passes in defence, and then they come forward in a good position. So for this reason he would have touched the ball a lot more [at Ajax]. Defenders in Italy are expected to win the ball and give it to a midfielder, and that's where the attack starts. It's a very different culture."

De Ligt was not at his best in the Netherlands' final Euro 2020 qualifying matches at the end of last year, but national coach Ronald Koeman defended him and backed him to recover from his difficult start at Juventus. Although Inter's Stefan de Vrij is a potential alternative to partner Virgil van Dijk at the heart of the Dutch defence at Euro 2020, there is no suggestion that De Ligt's place in the side is under threat.

Unsurprisingly, given the vast sums of money invested in him, there has been vocal support from senior officials at Juve as well. Fabio Paratici, the club's chief football officer, described the Dutchman as a "monster" in a December interview with Tuttosport and said that he represented "the best investment in a youngster that we've ever made." Sarri told Sky Sport Italia that De Ligt would become "the best defender in the world". 

Zebina was not always the most popular player in the eyes of Juve's fans during his six-year stint in Turin, but he says that although the club's global renown brings with it a significant level of scrutiny, De Ligt will benefit from the fact that the life of a footballer in the Piedmontese capital is generally hassle-free.

"There's more attention, and he'll have to adapt to that," said Zebina, who played for Juve from 2004 to 2010. "You're representing an extremely significant club, so you're obviously perceived as an opponent to beat. But the great advantage of playing at Juve is that life in Turin is very peaceful. You don't feel the kind of pressure you might feel in Rome or Milan or Florence. That's a big, big advantage."

For his part, De Ligt has thrown himself into his new life in Turin, having moved into the city centre with his fiancee, Dutch model AnneKee Molenaar, and their dogs. The pair have been spotted sitting at outdoor cafes on Piazza San Carlo, and the defender has shown a diligent approach to his Italian studies.

De Ligt with his fiancee AnneKee Molenaar
De Ligt with his fiancee AnneKee MolenaarANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/Getty Images

"He's learning Italian, and that's very important because we've had players who came from South America, for example, who couldn't speak Italian after many, many years in Italy," Conticello said. "He prefers to speak in English, because he's not comfortable yet in Italian, but I asked him a question in Italian in the mixed zone recently, and you could tell that he understood everything."

Chiellini's comeback means there is now more competition for places at centre-back, but in keeping with his display at Lyon, De Ligt's form since he returned to the starting XI in January has been solid. While there will inevitably be more bumps along the way, the future remains his for the taking.

Stats via WhoScored.com.



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