A dream was made real on Sunday when Juventus fans witnessed prodigious Netherlands centre-back Matthijs de Ligt don the Bianconeri colours.
Debutant De Ligt, 19, watched on helplessly deep into injury time as the ball flew over his head for Harry Kane’s staggering first-time winner from just inside the opposition half. This stupendous strike by the Tottenham Hotspur superstar produced a frustrating footnote to a half-hour run-out for the coveted teenager at Singapore National Stadium, less than a week since his €75 million switch from Ajax was confirmed.
The cameo role in the 3-2 loss for head coach Maurizio Sarri’s first game in charge gave few solid hints for the route ahead. But here we analyse the ripple effects from Juve’s emphatic transfer coup at Allianz Stadium:
Juve have possessed Serie A’s meanest defence for the last seven seasons – from each one, the title has been theirs.
Domestic dominance has become quotidian. Not even the existence of combustible former tactician Antonio Conte on the Inter bench should change that for next term.
De Ligt’s capture, in the midst of intense competition, had little to do with maintaining top-flight glory. Juve and current custodian Andrea Agnelli aspire to far more.
This searing ambition is exemplified by the Allianz’s September 2011’s inauguration, 2017’s introduction of a strikingly modern new badge, 2019/20’s iconoclastic ditching of the kit’s fabled stripes and their philosophy shift from “winning isn’t important, it’s the only thing that matters” to the ‘Sarri-ball’ attraction, in an effort to shamelessly appeal to North America’s mass market
De Ligt is another facet of this ceaseless drive beyond Italy’s borders.
At the heart of this scheme is the pain provided by 23 years of Champions League frustration.
De Ligt’s header deflated hopes in 2018/19’s quarter-finals, as did Portugal phenomenon Cristiano Ronaldo in the previous edition’s semis.
Both conquerors were snapped up, partly, in reaction.
Recent final appearances against Barcelona and Real Madrid ended with chasings. AC Milan triumphed on penalties in 2002/03’s showpiece, Predrag Mijatovic grabbed the only goal for Los Blancos during 1997/98’s decider and Borussia Dortmund’s Lars Ricken enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame in the prior campaign’s finale.
The holistic procurement of De Ligt was a show of might, grasp for the globe’s attention and cure for continental exasperation. Pressure is already growing to see these desires fulfilled.
Juve’s in-situ centre-backs are about to discover the ramifications of simple mathematics.
Sarri will not deviate from his dogmatic 4-3-3 formation, no matter the wealth of fresh options.
If it is taken for granted that skipper and talisman Giorgio Chiellini is a lock once declared fit, this leaves a single centre-back spot available.
Sarri demands that one of them builds from the rear. See Senegal’s imposing Kalidou Koulibaly at Napoli and rejuvenated ex-Brazil international David Luiz at Chelsea.
A straight choice in Turin presents itself between the 32-year-old Leonardo Bonucci and teenage landmark addition from the Netherlands, De Ligt.
Judged by WhoScored.com statistics from the 2018/19 Champions League, the rarefied Italian boasted compared to his potential usurper; more long balls per game (6.6/3), vastly superior long-ball pass-success percentage (57.4/40.7), better overall pass-success percentage (87.6/84.7) and greater key passes per game (0.5/0.1).
Stylistically, the Chiellini/Bonucci axis should endure. But this does not tell the whole picture.
De Ligt led in several key defensive barometers; aerials won (4.2/1.5), tackles per game (1.5/0.7), clearances per game (4.2/2.6) and interceptions past per game (1.4/1.2). The prospect of De Ligt regularly connecting with Miralem Pjanic set-pieces is also tantalising.
Sarri’s exacting and rigorous work on the training pitch can only lift De Ligt further.
“He was one of the reasons that I wanted to join here,” the defender said at his unveiling.
“I spoke to Sarri on the phone before coming just to get to know each other.
“I’ve heard a lot of good things about him and I like his footballing philosophy and how he prepares his defence.”
A word must also go out to Daniele Rugani. The 24-year-old’s patience has not been rewarded.
Sarri tried to sign him at Chelsea last summer. He is, however, fourth-choice centre-back at best under his former suitor now they are together in Turin.
It proved to be the summer’s telling interaction.
Ronaldo’s brazen approach to De Ligt in the wake of last month’s Nations League showpiece proved both prescient and illustrative. The five-time Ballon d’Or would only do this to entice the rarest of talents.
“Agent Ronaldo”, as De Ligt would subsequently joke to the world’s media.
The Portuguese has been a centrifugal force in three of football’s grandest clubs; Manchester United, Madrid and now Juve. His actions and achievements demand top billing.
It will be intriguing to witness how the dynamic between De Ligt and his exalted new team-mate develops.
Argentina forward Paulo Dybala wilted in Ronaldo’s presence, going from 2017/18’s high-water mark of 26 goals in all competitions to last term’s miserly 10.
De Ligt became Ajax’s youngest-ever captain in March 2018. Also by the age of 18, he was unmovable in the Netherlands XI.
Will these preternatural characteristics shine through in a new environment and language?
Will a remarkable sense of responsibility need to be curbed among such lauded senior team-mates? And if so, what impact will this have on De Ligt’s game?
Scrutiny can only increase. Repeats of the costly slip against England in the Nations League semi-final, and failure to stem rampant Spurs at the same stage in Europe, will be amplified.
De Ligt is not the only new face. Aaron Ramsey and Adrien Rabiot have been tasked with revitalising a stagnant midfield, while the lionised goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon is back at his spiritual home.
None, however, come with the Dutchman’s expectancy levels.
Success, or failure, is not guaranteed.
Exalted countryman Dennis Bergkamp made the journey from Ajax to Inter Milan in 1993 and flopped. Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit became legends at AC Milan.
Significant tests of character, temperament and technique await.
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