Cover Story

'If you're ready, nobody can stop you'

The slogan “Everything in life is black and white” is writ large on a wall outside the Juventus training ground in Turin. But for a young defender adapting to life in Serie A, there are also shades of grey. A new challenge, a new culture, a new way of playing. What hasn’t changed is the confidence, composure and desire to learn that has set Matthijs de Ligt apart since he first forced his way into the Ajax side as a 17-year-old

WORDS Paolo Menicucci & Derek Brookman | PHOTOGRAPHY Guido de Bortoli

It is refreshing to hear De Ligt discuss his game and to listen to his analysis. It is easy to forget that he was still 19 when he moved to Turin, cutting ties with the club he joined as a nine-year-old and all he has known in football up to now. It is soon clear that he has come to Italy with an open mind and is eager to learn.

“It is important to know for yourself if you’re mentally right; if you’re ready, nobody can stop you,” he says. “That is the thing that I started to realise and that is good also: to take a step back and see things that maybe you can improve. That is what I do. What I am saying is that mental ability is really important for defenders.”

That desire to learn, to evolve, served him well at Jong Ajax. “Until I was 15, I was an attacking midfielder,” he says. “I played a lot in midfield, scored some goals, provided assists, and then suddenly they told me it would be better for my career to go one position back, to centre-back. At the beginning I was thinking, ‘I don’t like being a defender,’ but now I’m starting to realise that the way I was brought up as a midfielder is helping me. So, I’m really happy that this was the development I had to go through. Since the emergence of that Barcelona team, the ‘tiki-taka’ team, everybody has wanted to play from the back. And to play from the back, you need defenders who are good with the ball. That’s why technical ability is really important in my role.”

I used to think, 'I don't like being a defender,' but my upbringing as a midfielder is helping me
By

De Ligt’s mentor at Ajax was legend Barry Hulshoff, who passed away shortly before this interview aged 73. “We met every week to talk about football,” says De Ligt. This thirst for knowledge means that he takes tips from the likes of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci at Juve, as well as Virgil van Dijk and coach Ronald Koeman with the Netherlands. “I’m learning a lot from him,” says De Ligt, talking about the former Barcelona libero with the blistering shot. “He tries to help me in specific situations and he’s worked with Van Dijk before, so he tries to make us work together in the best way possible. He gives all the advice he got during his career as a footballer.”

Looking at De Ligt and Van Dijk, it is tempting to picture them forming one of the best defensive partnerships on the international stage for years to come. “It’s great to play with one of the best players in the world. And I guess we are a good duo. And now at Juventus with Bonucci and Chiellini, they are defenders with a lot of experience who know what it’s all about. I try to learn from them.”

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Cover Story

'If you're ready, nobody can stop you'

The slogan “Everything in life is black and white” is writ large on a wall outside the Juventus training ground in Turin. But for a young defender adapting to life in Serie A, there are also shades of grey. A new challenge, a new culture, a new way of playing. What hasn’t changed is the confidence, composure and desire to learn that has set Matthijs de Ligt apart since he first forced his way into the Ajax side as a 17-year-old

WORDS Paolo Menicucci & Derek Brookman | PHOTOGRAPHY Guido de Bortoli

It is refreshing to hear De Ligt discuss his game and to listen to his analysis. It is easy to forget that he was still 19 when he moved to Turin, cutting ties with the club he joined as a nine-year-old and all he has known in football up to now. It is soon clear that he has come to Italy with an open mind and is eager to learn.

“It is important to know for yourself if you’re mentally right; if you’re ready, nobody can stop you,” he says. “That is the thing that I started to realise and that is good also: to take a step back and see things that maybe you can improve. That is what I do. What I am saying is that mental ability is really important for defenders.”

That desire to learn, to evolve, served him well at Jong Ajax. “Until I was 15, I was an attacking midfielder,” he says. “I played a lot in midfield, scored some goals, provided assists, and then suddenly they told me it would be better for my career to go one position back, to centre-back. At the beginning I was thinking, ‘I don’t like being a defender,’ but now I’m starting to realise that the way I was brought up as a midfielder is helping me. So, I’m really happy that this was the development I had to go through. Since the emergence of that Barcelona team, the ‘tiki-taka’ team, everybody has wanted to play from the back. And to play from the back, you need defenders who are good with the ball. That’s why technical ability is really important in my role.”

Read the full story
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I used to think, 'I don't like being a defender,' but my upbringing as a midfielder is helping me
By

De Ligt’s mentor at Ajax was legend Barry Hulshoff, who passed away shortly before this interview aged 73. “We met every week to talk about football,” says De Ligt. This thirst for knowledge means that he takes tips from the likes of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci at Juve, as well as Virgil van Dijk and coach Ronald Koeman with the Netherlands. “I’m learning a lot from him,” says De Ligt, talking about the former Barcelona libero with the blistering shot. “He tries to help me in specific situations and he’s worked with Van Dijk before, so he tries to make us work together in the best way possible. He gives all the advice he got during his career as a footballer.”

Looking at De Ligt and Van Dijk, it is tempting to picture them forming one of the best defensive partnerships on the international stage for years to come. “It’s great to play with one of the best players in the world. And I guess we are a good duo. And now at Juventus with Bonucci and Chiellini, they are defenders with a lot of experience who know what it’s all about. I try to learn from them.”

Cover Story

'If you're ready, nobody can stop you'

The slogan “Everything in life is black and white” is writ large on a wall outside the Juventus training ground in Turin. But for a young defender adapting to life in Serie A, there are also shades of grey. A new challenge, a new culture, a new way of playing. What hasn’t changed is the confidence, composure and desire to learn that has set Matthijs de Ligt apart since he first forced his way into the Ajax side as a 17-year-old

WORDS Paolo Menicucci & Derek Brookman | PHOTOGRAPHY Guido de Bortoli

It is refreshing to hear De Ligt discuss his game and to listen to his analysis. It is easy to forget that he was still 19 when he moved to Turin, cutting ties with the club he joined as a nine-year-old and all he has known in football up to now. It is soon clear that he has come to Italy with an open mind and is eager to learn.

“It is important to know for yourself if you’re mentally right; if you’re ready, nobody can stop you,” he says. “That is the thing that I started to realise and that is good also: to take a step back and see things that maybe you can improve. That is what I do. What I am saying is that mental ability is really important for defenders.”

That desire to learn, to evolve, served him well at Jong Ajax. “Until I was 15, I was an attacking midfielder,” he says. “I played a lot in midfield, scored some goals, provided assists, and then suddenly they told me it would be better for my career to go one position back, to centre-back. At the beginning I was thinking, ‘I don’t like being a defender,’ but now I’m starting to realise that the way I was brought up as a midfielder is helping me. So, I’m really happy that this was the development I had to go through. Since the emergence of that Barcelona team, the ‘tiki-taka’ team, everybody has wanted to play from the back. And to play from the back, you need defenders who are good with the ball. That’s why technical ability is really important in my role.”

I used to think, 'I don't like being a defender,' but my upbringing as a midfielder is helping me
By

De Ligt’s mentor at Ajax was legend Barry Hulshoff, who passed away shortly before this interview aged 73. “We met every week to talk about football,” says De Ligt. This thirst for knowledge means that he takes tips from the likes of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci at Juve, as well as Virgil van Dijk and coach Ronald Koeman with the Netherlands. “I’m learning a lot from him,” says De Ligt, talking about the former Barcelona libero with the blistering shot. “He tries to help me in specific situations and he’s worked with Van Dijk before, so he tries to make us work together in the best way possible. He gives all the advice he got during his career as a footballer.”

Looking at De Ligt and Van Dijk, it is tempting to picture them forming one of the best defensive partnerships on the international stage for years to come. “It’s great to play with one of the best players in the world. And I guess we are a good duo. And now at Juventus with Bonucci and Chiellini, they are defenders with a lot of experience who know what it’s all about. I try to learn from them.”

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