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There are two young Dutch footballers, respectively only 23 and 21 years of age, who already hold a great weight of expectation on their shoulders for club and country, now and for many years to come. One is a commanding centre half, the other a classy ball playing central midfielder. They each have bags of potential and have long been cited as two potentially world-class players.
And, although they are two years apart and have slightly different career origins, the trajectories of Frenkie De Jong and Matthijs de Ligt continue to have a conspicuous symmetry.
Each broke into the Ajax first team in the 2016/17 season after a year impressing together for the Under 21s, indoctrinated in the methods of Ajax’s legendary academy, De Toekoms. They instantly played key roles in the side that reached the Europa League Final. They then kicked on, becoming regulars the year after and then the two shining stars of the famous young side in 18/19 that was a few seconds from a Champions League Final, won Ajax’s first Eredivisie in five years and secured a double by lifting the Dutch Cup. As two of the game’s most sought after youngsters, they then each made €75 million moves to two of Europe’s big hitters – De Jong to Barcelona and De Ligt to Juventus.
Both inevitably arrived with great fanfare, expectation and therefore pressure. Although the scrutiny at Ajax was high, what they had to adjust to in Catalonia and Turin was at a whole new level. Being a new, expensive signing at Barcelona and Juventus would be a daunting challenge for any new player, let alone two who, despite their undoubted talents, only had three senior seasons under their belts. The packed pre-Covid-19 Camp Nou and Allianz Arena stadiums, the new language, teammates, tactics and the general fan and media pressure to perform at a high level every match is something few can instantly operate effectively and consistently in.
And De Jong and De Ligt each admitted early struggles, even though the former clocked up 42 appearances and the latter ended up a Serie A winner, as Juventus again cruised to domestic glory. The early problems were in large part due to the lack of a bedding in period for either player – they were rushed straight into the spotlight and expected to deliver.
For De Ligt, this materialised when Georgio Chiellini, the defensive stalwart he would have hoped to have learnt from, suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury at the start of the season. The first defender to win the ‘Golden Boy’ and youngest to play for Holland since 1931 was dropped after several poor performances, which included giving away a number of penalties, and was on the receiving end of much criticism. He struggled with the new tactical demands from then coach Maurizio Sarri, including a zonal marking approach and high defensive line. Meanwhile in Spain, De Jong was tasked with immediately bringing back the style and effectiveness to a team still badly missing Andres Iniesta and Xavi. He suffered seven different injuries, contributed little attacking output and it was generally unclear where he fitted into the side, in spite of the obvious quality he possessed on the ball. It ended with ultimate anonymity, as Barcelona were embarrassed 8-2 in the Champions League by Bayern Munich.
The correlation in their careers has since continued into this campaign, with their respective clubs having experienced a drop off from their usual stratospheric heights. Indeed, for much of the last six months, the names of Barcelona and Juventus have been synonymous not with dominance and quality but underperformance, stagnation and massive problems off the pitch. They are suffering serious financial issues due to the pandemic, impeding upon the squad rebuilds they require, and each have been humbled early in the Champions League. A chance of a tenth consecutive title is long gone for Juventus and Barcelona’s recent resurgence, bringing them back into the title race and to a Copa del Rey Final, masks their enormous struggles for much of the campaign. They are also still shuddering at the idea of Lionel Messi getting his wish of leaving. For De Jong and De Ligt, it must feel like being bought a new Ferrari only to realise it has way more mileage than you were told, a faulty engine and has been badly treated by the former owner.
Considering these circumstances, that De Jong and De Ligt have since become indispensable says all for their ability and mentality.
Di Ligt was practically flawless in the home straight of the last campaign, stepping out from the back and reading the play in front of him. And, whilst he has been hampered recently by injury, he now has over 60 appearances in less than two seasons, which should not be sniffed at. If Juventus are now going to go through a rebuild, they will need De Ligt at the centre of it. This is the same for De Jong, for whom the biggest compliment that can be given is that his performances have provided a welcome distraction from Barca’s off-field problems. He has transformed into one of their key players and is making decisive contributions from a more advanced number 8 position. His six goals and six assists (and counting) is the best return of his career, after only four in three seasons at Ajax. Furthermore, he is right at the top of the list of minutes played for players across all competitions in Europe’s five major leagues, showing his durability. If Barca are to pull off a surprising double, it is De Jong and not just Messi who they will be relying on.
Finally, on the international stage, this summer should see them be pivotal players for a revitalised Netherlands at the European Championship. Under Frank de Boer, the recently appointed coach, De Jong is at the heartbeat of the side, enabling the rest of the Oranje body to act effectively. The importance of De Ligt has only been accentuated by the absence of the injured Virgil van Dijk. They are at the spine of a team that should have no problems qualifying from its group and will fancy their chances of going deep into the tournament, even though a potential second round game against Germany, Portugal or France could await them. Just like with their clubs, if the Netherlands are to be successful, both now and in future major tournaments, they need De Ligt and De Jong.
The careers of De Ligt and De Jong have been progressing at lightning speed, in an almost constant upward trajectory. It is remarkable to think that they could still be at the pinnacle of the game for the next decade. That they are primed to become two of the world’s best at the same time is entirely fitting for their entwined stories; players as essential for the present as they are for the future.
Past, present and future – the parallel paths of Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de LigtTweet