Football fans received a glimpse of the future this week – and it was Oranje coloured.
In 18-year-old centre-back Matthijs de Ligt, a totem is emerging of where the ‘Beautiful Game’ is headed.
Blessed with dynamism to engender envy in even the finest box-to-box midfielder, De Ligt is utterly unfazed when bursting into the attacking half. Yet he was still capable of halting Cristiano Ronaldo’s scoring run of 19 goals in his last nine games during Monday’s 3-0 friendly win for the Netherlands, which was joyously laced with belated promise.
The callow youth so brutally exposed on debut versus Bulgaria last year is transforming into a revolutionary figure.
He is accelerating along a path forged by Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer and countryman Ruud Krol more than 40 years ago. And one since traversed by the likes of new national boss Ronald Koeman, his contemporary Frank Rijkaard, Brazil World Cup 2002 winner Lucio and the irrepressible Sergio Ramos.
Ramifications of De Ligt’s startling nascent performances reverberate far beyond Ajax’s Amsterdam ArenA. They should be felt in the corridors of power at Camp Nou and Old Trafford, impacting key strategic decisions in the summer transfer market ahead.
Consummate defending alone is no longer enough at the highest level of European club competition. Such is the dominance of the elite, simply shutting out the opposition is a thought reserved for a handful of select fixtures.
The leaders in the big-five leagues (La Liga, Premier League, Bundesliga, Ligue 1, Serie A) have won a combined 121 times from 146 fixtures. They’ve lost just once to opposition from the bottom half of the table – Paris Saint-Germain going down 2-1 at Strasbourg in December.
In the top-five seasons in Champions League history with the highest goal average, four have been recorded since 2013/14 – with 2016/17’s 3.04 the most.
Further evidence that the minnows offer increasing cannon fodder is found in the fact the top-two teams who scored the most goals in the groups come from this season. PSG’s 25 goals pipped Liverpool by two.
Borussia Dortmund round out the top three with their 21 in 2016/17.
17y 225d - Matthijs de Ligt becomes the youngest player to play for the Netherlands since 1931 (Mauk Weber, 17y 222d). Rookie.— OptaJohan (@OptaJohan) March 25, 2017
Efficacy in defence is still important. It just now, more than ever, must be supplemented by ability on the ball.
To stick with the Dutch theme, De Ligt’s antecedents are Rijkaard and Koeman. But what makes him so valuable is an increasing defensive acumen redolent of Jaap Stam.
His statistics at club and international level bear this out.
On Eredivise duty for Ajax, only centre midfielder Frenkie de Jong’s average-pass-success rate of 91.4 per cent beats his 89.5 per cent.
Intriguingly, 15 team-mates beat his average of one tackle per game. But don’t mistake this for being a soft touch, De Ligt leads the way with average clearances (4.5 per game) and aerials won (3.2 per game).
His two key passes – both assists – for the Oranje in victory against Euro 2016 winners Portugal was double any compatriot. A break into space on the right-hand side of the penalty box and perfect cross for Besiktas’ Ryan Babel to make it 2-0 was exemplar of his auspicious abilities.
Granted the same freedom by Koeman to push forward like he does for Ajax, he impressively was not dispossessed once in both fixtures during the international break.
At 18-years old, areas of improvement remain obvious. De Ligt was fortunate to not concede a spot-kick for felling fellow wonder kid Marcus Rashford in Friday’s 1-0 loss to England.
Greater judgement will come with increased experience – although not at World Cup 2018.
It is this tantalising prospect that could cause the leadership at Barcelona to make a brave judgement call in the months ahead.
Samuel Umtiti has been in peerless form, February’s early misjudgement against Girona aside. Reports in Catalan daily SPORT state the 24-year-old France centre-back’s advisers have been emboldened to demand an annual pay rise from €4.4 million (Dh20m) to nearly €18m (Dh82m) for an enticing €60m (Dh273.2m) release clause to be upgraded.
Figures Manchester United are happy to pay.
With Barca already blowing through their Neymar windfall with the acquisitions of Ousmane Dembele and Philippe Coutinho, plus ready to lavish another nine-figure fee on Antoine Griezmann, something may have to give.
The acquisition of De Ligt on a five-year deal would, surely, cost less than renewing Umtiti.
This would not just represent an astute saving of cash at the cost of relinquishing a ready-made product.
They would be investing in a player of unmatched applicability to the modern game.
Ernesto Valverde‘s current squad has Iniesta, Lionel Messi and Sergio Busquets as the captains. But according to Marca, the club will be appointing a new skipper during pre-season this summer, after the 2018 World Cup in Russia ends.
While the 33-year-old makes a decision before the end of May about whether to stay at Camp Nou or leave, with Messi expected to become the official captain in the second case.
Pique has been seen commanding the team on many occasions, but his vocal presence on the pitch might have been a reason he wasn’t given the captain’s armband earlier and Javier Mascherano was appointed instead.
Rakitic on the other hand has captained Sevilla in the past and is also the leader at international level with Croatia, and therefore is being seen as a frontrunner among team-mates Luis Suarez, Jordi Alba and goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
Umtiti, whose current contract at the Catalan club runs until 2021, has been one of Barca’s most successful signings in the last few years and his release clause sits at just €60 million. The 24-year old star’s partnership at centre-back with Gerard Pique has been key to their defensive record this season.
During a questionnaire game organised by TF1, Umtiti was given the option to answer “yes”, “no” or “joker” to each question.
The Frenchman exercised the option to pass presented by the “joker” on two occasions.
First, when asked if he will renew at Barca. Second, when asked if he would sign for Manchester United.
Having given impressive performances week-in and week-out ever since his arrival at the club, it would be a surprise if Umtiti isn’t a top target for a club like United seeking defensive reinforcements.