Barcelona have secured the signature of Ajax star Frenkie de Jong, with the Dutchman set to join the Catalans in the summer, but the Blaugrana may not stop their Dutch raid there.
Another Ajax wonderkid, Matthijs de Ligt, has been linked to the Spanish giants for while now. The fact that European heavyweights like Manchester City, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain are also in the race to sign the centre-back, still just 19, speaks volumes.
There is no question about De Ligt’s quality, leadership abilities and potential, and the obvious fact that any team would love to have him. Transfermarkt value the player at £58.5 million but, realistically, De Ligt will fetch Ajax at least £85m.
Keeping in mind that Barcelona are in dire need of a striker in the summer and might have to shell out big bucks, it’s worth questioning whether De Ligt is a real ‘need’ or just a ‘want’.
First, we must look at Barcelona’s options at the centre-back position for next season.
Gerard Pique will be 32 and with a couple of good seasons still ahead of him, the veteran Spaniard will be occupying one of the two spots at the heart of defence. The World Cup-winner has been back to his phenomenal best this season and has proved repeatedly that he can’t be written off so easily.
Samuel Umtiti has struggled to find playing time this season because of an injury to his left knee. But when fit, he’s one of the best defenders in the world. The 25-year-old will undoubtedly be part of the spine of Barcelona’s defence for a long time.
However, the World Cup 2018-winner has played just one game since September and the Catalans have barely missed him. That’s all down to fellow Frenchman Clement Lenglet.
Lenglet has put in a string of impeccable performances and covered up his compatriot’s absence so perfectly that there is a need for a reminder that Umtiti is still a Barcelona player.
The former Sevilla man continues to show why he was sought after by clubs like Manchester United and Juve. His impressive sense of positioning has helped him acclimatise to Barca’s style of play.
Good positioning takes precedence over good tackling for a defender to be considered mature. If both fail, he has to lunge in for a foul and take a card.
Luckily for Barcelona, Lenglet reads the game really well and lets his positioning do most of the work for him. A hard tackler of the ball, he is also an embodiment of great composure. Getting past the 23-year-old in a one-on-one is not particularly easy, unless you have incredible acceleration.
Another aspect of the Frenchman’s game that deserves attention is his instinct to make incisive vertical passes. The likes of Real Betis pair Aissa Mandi, and Marc Bartra, as well as Pique, are some of the best ball-playing centre-backs in the league, but Lenglet comes close.
The centre-back has his flaws. His limited pace can be a problem for a team which plays a very high line.
Lenglet’s reflexes inside the box – whether it is to block a shot or stretch that extra inch to prevent a defender from getting a touch after a low-cross – are not his strongest suit.
Assuming utility man Thomas Vermaelan leaves, Barca still need a fourth centre-back who has the quality to start a game semi-regularly as Pique enters the twilight of his career. Yet another Frenchman, Jean-Clair Todibo, enters the picture here.
The 19-year-old was signed from Toulouse last month, presumably as an alternative to De Ligt, and will join in the summer. A good tackler of the ball and a threat in the air, he can be moulded into a perfect fit by the time Pique’s time at the club is up.
The club will then be home to three brilliant centre-backs, all capable of starting a game for any top club. A fourth-choice central option can be picked up from the B team – preferably Chumi or Jorge Cuenca.
De Ligt can offer a lot to any team. The youngster is great with his passing and positioning and shows exemplary leadership qualities. Also, the Dutchman has experience of playing in Erik ten Hag’s ‘totaalvoetbal’ system and this should make him an automatic candidate for the Barcelona centre-back position.
The Ajax star’s weaknesses are miniscule and are things that can be overcome easily with experience. He can be a victim to poor decision making, often leading to mistimed tackles.
But he is still arguably the best young defender in the world and top clubs are clearly drooling over him.
Barcelona’s defence is more potent than it gets credit for. Although De Ligt would be a great signing, the Dutchman is definitely not a pressing need for the Catalans, certainly not in terms of how obviously the acquisition of compatriot De Jong was required.
If anything, signing a striker and bringing in reinforcements at the left-back position must take precedence.
With De Jong coming in, the Blaugrana’s wage-structure will take a further hit in the summer and adding De Ligt to the list would not be the best use of their cash.
The lack of a back-up and replacement for Luis Suarez could cause more serious problems than not securing the Dutchman’s signature.
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