With almost the entire world in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, football seems like, and is, a secondary concern at the moment. But, for the football fan, the current enforced break from the sport has led to a huge gap in their lives. Football clubs are doing what they can to fill this void, by streaming old classic matches and having mock battles with each other on social media – betting companies are even getting in on the action and there has been a big uptake in online betting in Nigeria as a result. However, this has also allowed supporters to step back and take stock of their teams’ respective seasons so far, and the Juventus fans will have been pleased with the progress of their young Dutch centre-back, Matthijs de Ligt.
It is safe to say that de Ligt did not have the easiest start at Juve. He was still a month away from turning 20 when he signed for the club, showing just how young he still is and how long he has to go in his career. There was immense pressure on him due to his performances for Ajax in the previous season, as well as the €75 million transfer fee, which made it almost mandatory that he hit the ground running in Turin. While he would have hoped for a gradual transition into the first XI as he adapted to Serie A as well as Maurizio Sarri’s tactics, club captain Giorgio Chiellini’s knee injury back in August put paid to those hopes. It meant that de Ligt was thrust into the lineup almost immediately upon arrival, and his subsequent struggles cannot have been a surprise, in hindsight. De Ligt picked up an injury of his own, and despite trying to soldier on for some time, eventually had to make way for Merih Demiral as he recuperated.
However, his form since recovering and returning to the lineup has been extraordinary. De Ligt had been superb for Juventus since the turn of the year, putting in some brilliant defensive displays and forming a good partnership with Leonardo Bonucci. He only got his chance back in the lineup due to Demiral’s season-ending injury against AS Roma, but has taken it with both hands to become a steady presence at the back for the Old Lady.
This was in stark contrast to the early months of the season, when de Ligt openly spoke of ‘being lost’ and struggling to adapt to the team, during the October international break. It is rare for a player to be so forthright, especially about their struggles, and showed de Ligt’s maturity as well as his self-awareness. Having come through the Ajax academy, the Dutchman had swapped familiar surroundings and a comfort zone for the highly-pressurised environment of Turin. With stalwarts like Gianluigi Buffon, Chiellini, Bonucci and Cristiano Ronaldo now sharing the dressing room with him, he had very high benchmarks to try and achieve right off the bat. All he needed was time though, as it turns out, and his performances in this calendar year have finally shown the Juve fans what he is capable of, so much so that he would have been privately disappointed that his excellent run of form had to come to a shuddering halt due to the current suspension of football. Fans will hope that this break does not take away his rhythm, and that he returns to the side in as much form as earlier to help Juve keep their crown as Serie A champions.