A big transfer these days is never just about a player leaving one club to join another. It’s now about politics, about the great game of diplomacy as the superclubs jockey for position. When Matthijs De Ligt completed his $84.3 move from Ajax to Juventus, it wasn’t just about those two clubs, but also about Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain, Neymar and a host of other players.
That De Ligt is an excellent defender is not in doubt. He may have made a couple of high-profile mistakes in the Champions League semifinal last season but he is astonishingly mature for a 19-year-old and seems a template for a new breed of defender in that he is both comfortable on the ball, capable of carrying it out from the back, while also possessing all the physical attributes of an old-school center back. He is also a major threat from attacking set pieces as Juventus discovered as he scored in both legs against it in last season’s Champions League quarterfinal.
It’s clear why Juve wants him, and signing a central defender was always going to be a priority for given the age of the players it currently has in that position. He is, though, a slightly different style of player to that Juve has recently preferred at the back. Although Leonardo Bonnucci is comfortable on the ball, he has never strode forward in quite the way that De Ligt does. Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini, meanwhile, are much more defensive defenders. In that sense, De Ligt can been seen as part of the transition to a more fluid, forward-thinking style as Maurizio Sarri replaces Max Allegri as coach.
Some eyebrows will be raised that Juve, after also picking up Adrien Rabiot and Aaron Ramsey this summer – on free transfers admittedly, but also on high wages – can afford him, when it is also shelling out so much on Cristiano Ronaldo, but there will presumably be a concerted effort to offload Gonzalo Higuain and perhaps one or two other departures.
But what is perhaps more significant is the fact that Barcelona who, keen to maintain De Ligt’s partnership with Frenkie De Jong and seemed favorite to sign him, decided to cool its interest. Even after landing De Jong and Antoine Greizmann it was understood Barça felt it could afford one more major deal but, in the end, it seems to have decided that a deal that might ultimately cost as much as $144m was just too much, especially when it already has Gerard Pique, Samuel Umtiti and Clement Lenglet.
Or at least that’s how the club is trying to spin it.
That version of events, though, doesn’t tally with reports that Barça had already reached an informal agreement with Ajax over an $80m fee, only for De Ligt to turn the club down. Either way, Barça’s attention now, remarkably, seems focused on trying to land Neymar. It had initially seemed that interest had withered with the arrival of Griezmann at the Camp Nou, but there have been a reports of an offer of $80m plus Philippe Coutinho for the Brazilian. Given Ousmane Dembele’s struggles to settle at Camp Nou, PSG must wonder whether it might be able to land one of the brightest young talents in France, albeit a wayward one, as part of some deal. Where a return to Barcelona for Neymar would leave Luis Suarez is another question.
PSG also wanted De Ligt and had apparently offered him a $420,000 a week deal. He, though, seemingly decided that the lack of competition in Ligue 1 meant it was not ideal for his continued development, preferring to test himself somewhere at least a little more competitive. That said, Juve will expect to win Serie A for the ninth successive season this campaign; there, as in Paris, the real test will come in the later stages of the Champions League.
The other intriguing aspect is that there was seemingly no serious interest from Premier League clubs. De Ligt would seem a Pep Guardiola type of central defender, and with Vincent Kompany and Eliaquim Mangala leaving the club, that is an area the Premier League champion needs to strengthen. It may simply be that for some reason Guardiola doesn’t actually rate him, but there has been a general sense this summer of English clubs retrenching a little.
De Ligt, though, looks a player of immense potential, and $84m does not seem expensive. The issue now is how he develops at a league that is clearly tougher than the Eredivisie but one in which he may not have to do a huge amount of defending.