The total defender: Ajax ace De Ligt in no rush for Barca
The 18-year-old finished fourth in the 2018 NxGn and he is already being linked with Europe's finest clubs
As one watches Matthijs de Ligt strut around the Johan Cruijff Arena, it’s easy to forget that the classy defender is just 18.
"He looks like he’s been doing this for six or seven years," Ajax CEO Edwin van der Sar enthuses in an exclusive interview with Goal. "Matthijs is very mature for his age: he has the physique of a 24-year-old.
"He is also strong with both feet, has an extremely good range of passing, can head the ball, scores goals and is a real leader at the back already at the age of 18.
"He came into the first team last year and has never looked back."
Indeed, despite his tender age, the 1.88m tall centre-back is already a first-team regular, a Europa League runner-up and a Netherlands international. It is hardly surprising, then, that De Ligt is one of Europe’s most coveted players.
While an Ajax attack consisting of Justin Kluivert, David Neres and Hakim Ziyech deservedly demands most of the media attention in Amsterdam, De Ligt’s class, imposing frame and tendency to rush into the action make him just as compelling a figure.
Stationed alongside the rock-solid Davinson Sanchez, De Ligt played a pivotal part in Ajax reaching the final of last year’s Europa League but the subsequent €40 million sale of his central defensive partner to Tottenham placed far greater responsibility upon his young shoulders this season.
He has coped comfortably with the added pressure, though, even establishing himself as a key character off the field, too.
"Matthijs is one of those who makes the difference in the locker room," team-mate Max Wober revealed.
"Just before a match, he takes to the floor and makes sure everyone is super sharp and wants to go all in."
His leadership skills became even more important after midfielder Frenkie de Jong was moved back to play beside him towards the end of 2017. He has made his team-mate’s transition smoother than anyone could have imagined.
Indeed, De Ligt is just as adept at leading by actions as he is by words. He uses his impressive physical strength to muscle attackers off the ball and never holds back when he needs to slide in to take the ball away cleanly from his opponent.
He can get dragged out of position on occasion but there is no doubt that his spatial awareness will improve with experience.
On the ball, meanwhile, he is always calm and composed, helping Ajax circulate possession swiftly and effectively. De Ligt usually takes the safe route in sending the ball wide, but he is happy to charge forward and join in the attack whenever the opportunity presents itself.
In short, the teenager is blossoming into an accomplished all-round defender.
"De Ligt has everything," former Ajax coach Frank de Boer has claimed. "He almost defends on his own.
"He is everywhere but he lets go of his man at the right time. I really love watching him."
De Boer’s brother Ronald, another Ajax legend, has been just as taken with De Ligt’s incredible potential.
"The great thing about Matthijs is his natural superiority," the former Barcelona ace explained. "Despite being only 18, he is already busy with the people around him.
"Most boys at his age are not that far on yet. The development that Matthijs is going through is amazing."
De Ligt is taking care to ensure he develops the right way, too. In training, he has striven to ensure that his speed does not suffer as a consequence of his extra strength work, learning how to move more efficiently and take much larger steps to put his power to good use in his running. Boosting his agility is next on the to-do list.
He may be developing at a rapid rate physically but De Ligt is also proving himself mentally strong.
Receiving his first call-up to the national team at 17 was a joyous occasion for the Leiderdorp native, but coach Danny Blind raised a few eyebrows when he chose to start De Ligt in the must-win World Cup qualifier against Bulgaria.
His dream debut descended into something out of a Dutch tragedy, with the youngster replaced by the break after a nightmare first half in which he contributed to the concession of two goals that resulted in a defeat that ended Blind’s reign.
De Ligt, though, has already put that traumatic experience behind him, as he continues to show the resilience and maturity of a player destined to excel at the very highest level.
Indeed, on Monday, he set up two goals in Netherlands' 3-0 rout of Portugal, while at the same time playing his part in Cristiano Ronaldo failing to land a single shot on target for the first time this season.
Barcelona and Bayern Munich are now watching him closely but he is not planning on leaving Amsterdam so soon after extending his contract until 2021.
He is happy to be part of an Ajax side that, under new coach Erik ten Hag, are confident of achieving great things with their brightest generation of teenage talent in two decades.
There’s certainly no rush for De Ligt to move on. After all, he is still only 18, even if it’s easy to forget that sometimes.