Few football youth systems have been quite as impressive as the AFC Ajax Youth Academy. From legendary goalscorers like Johan Cruyff and Dennis Bergkamp to tough-tackling defenders like Tottenham duo Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, many of the finest players to turn out for the four-time European champions were moulded in the historic academy.
There are a few potential superstars in the latest batch of talent coming out of the club’s prolific production line, but one name stands out above all the rest: Matthijs De Ligt. He may be only 19, but the Dutch central defender already has 11 international caps to his name and a whole host of individual awards, including the ‘Talent of the Future’ trophy for 2016 and ‘Talent of the Year’ prize in 2018.
Born in the little town of Leiderdorp, De Ligt joined up with Ajax at just 9 years of age. Training in one of the most historically successful academies in the world is certainly an advantage for any young player, but it’s not a guaranteed ticket to success, it’s an opportunity to be seized. And if there’s one thing that De Ligt has proven, it’s that he’s ready, willing, and able to make the most of any chance he gets.
So, when he was chosen to make his professional debut with reserve side Jong Ajax in August of 2016, he never looked back. He made his senior bow a month later in a goalscoring debut at barely 17 years of age. Since then, he’s played over 70 games for the club across all competitions and firmly established himself as one of the most exciting young defenders in Europe.
Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of De Ligt’s meteoric rise has been the maturity he has shown, both on and off the pitch, every step of the way. He may have youthful looks, but he plays with the poise, awareness, and leadership of a man ten years his senior.
With excellent passing abilities, strong aerial presence, and the mental and physical fortitude to handle the biggest games and highest pressure situations, De Ligt looks fully deserving of the 50 million euro price tag that has been floating around in conjunction with his name. He’s even a decent goal threat, having scored 8 goals for Ajax so far.
Very highly rated by Ajax coaches and Dutch football experts, De Ligt seems to have everything he needs to succeed at the very highest level as an all-round modern defender, but it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for the youngster. His very first international appearance, for example, would have been cause for celebration but ended in disaster as the then-17-year-old was hauled off at half-time having played a major role in an awful first half.
An experience like that could have shattered the confidence of many a teenage footballer, but De Ligt, as has become customary, showed the mental fortitude needed to bounce back in his very next game when he created two goals and kept Cristiano Ronaldo quiet in the Netherlands 3-0 demolition of European Champions Portugal in March of 2017.
His technical class and maturity could spell a new dawn for the Dutch national side, with De Ligt and Liverpool’s Virgil Van Dijk forming a fearsome partnership, most recently evidenced in the Netherlands’ 3-0 Nations League victory over Germany back in October.
It’s easy to forget just how young De Ligt actually is when one watches him play. The teenage sensation shows a level of skill and leadership that belies his tender age, and it’s no surprise he’s being linked with major clubs around the continent. Ajax will want to hold onto their latest starlet as long as they can, but they won’t be able to keep De Ligt in the Dutch league for too long; stars like him are destined for the top.