When a young 17 year old Matthijs de ligt took the field in the Orange colours of his country, one thing was clear. The kid had been ear-marked to be the next big thing since Kylian Mbappe burst onto the scene at AS Monaco. The match was a crucial FIFA World Cup qualification tie against Bulgaria which the Oranjes lost, with Danny Blind criticized for starting a player who had only played twice for his club at the senior level. It all went downhill for the country since then, but de Ligt has only added to his reputation, becoming a regular in the Ajax back-line, and more recently in Ronald Koeman’s Dutch side.
In his first year in the Ajax first team, de Ligt played alongside another highly rated defender, who learnt his skills at Willem II and attracted the interest of Ajax in the summer of 2015, Frenkie de Jong. de Jong had spent two seasons playing for the Ajax youth team, learning the Ajax way of playing football and making sure he was ready to step up when the time came.
In his second year, he was slowly integrated into the first team, playing 11 games in all competitions. After a solid summer behind him, de Jong stepped up to become a regular in the first team. He was paired up with the aforementioned de Ligt, who had also established himself in the first team by now.
de Jong replaced Davinson Sanchez, who had moved to Spurs, in the first team at the start of the 2017/18 season. A few assured performances later, de Jong became the central defender everyone was talking about. He was touted as the next Ronald Koeman, as the man who would bring back the Libero (or) sweeper defender like the great Klaus Augenthaler. But something felt off. It always looked like de Jong was playing in his comfort zone, making light work of tracking and bullying strikers in the Eredivisie and Europe, which was evident by an impressive Europa League finals run.
Ajax’s manager, Erik ten Hag, felt the same. Ajax brought in Daley Blind and Nicolas Tagliafico to add some experience in their backline. The move was also seen as the next step taken to necessitate the progression of the central defensive starlets. But the acquisition of Daley Blind posed a problem to ten Hag. Should he bench the former Manchester United starlet for Frenkie de Jong or move to a three man defense.
The solution was neither. Frenkie de Jong was moved into the central defensive midfield position, making for a defensive pairing of Matthijs de Ligt and Daley Blind. It was the perfect tactical move by the manager, one which solved all the questions and cleared all the doubts. de Jong was now not only using his defensive abilities and sense of positioning to screen the defense. After successful tackles, his ability to get out of tight spaces meant that he was able to retain the ball well. It also meant that he could put on display his expansive passing range or carry the ball forward to transition his team into attack.
It was as if the move to CDM had unlocked an extra gear, an extra level which was yet to be tapped into. de Jong had suddenly become indispensable. The move to CDM also meant that his job required him to stay out of the limelight and camera focus, thus reducing his media coverage, which went to his equally talented counterpart, Matthijs de Ligt. While de Ligt is a big talent who will certainly have a big decision to make come summer, it will definitely be de Jong who will get to pick and choose his next destination.
While Manchester City and FC Barcelona are the two clubs most likely to fight it out for the signature of de Ligt, almost every club in the top 5 league vying for a Champions League spot will be in for de Jong, who will get a chance to choose a club and a manager who will play him in his best position and help him express himself in the best way possible on the pitch.