If Juventus supporters were praying that coach Maurizio Sarri had solved the enigma which engulfed his side’s attacking fluidity prior to the coronavirus outbreak, then they will have been left cursing whichever God that has clearly ignored their calls.
Should you try to summarise I Bianconeri’s last four performances in one word, ‘underwhelming’ would be a massive compliment. Juve failed to find the back of the net in their two Coppa Italia clashes against Milan and Napoli – losing the final on penalties – before edging to an unconvincing victory over Bologna on their return to Serie A duties.
The Old Lady did earn three points with a comfortable 4-0 win at home to Lecce on Friday evening, but the scoreline more than flattered the hosts, who were second best until being gifted a man advantage midway through the first half.
But amid all of this uncertainty, lethargy and bluntness in attack, there has been one saving grace for Sarri. Juve’s backline is yet to be breached. Four games, four clean sheets, and although not spectacular, they have been extremely solid.
And among a sea of mediocrity, one man stands head and shoulders above his colleagues.
Matthijs de Ligt.
The Dutch centre-back has taken his game to another level since Christmas, and with Juve looking largely toothless up top, his imperious displays are proving more vital than ever.
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing for the strapping defender, though. Arriving as a €75m addition from Ajax, De Ligt was Juventus’ marquee signing in the 2019 summer transfer window. Still a mere teenager, there was no doubting his potential, but even as a prospect, he was expected to hit the ground running from the off.
But he didn’t. De Ligt was robbed of the opportunity to learn from one of the greatest defenders of his generation in Giorgio Chiellini, who picked up a long-term knee injury at the beginning of the season. This thrust the starlet into the limelight quicker than Sarri may have planned, with the Italian hoping to bed him in throughout the campaign.
It was trial by fire for the defender, and unfortunately, he got burned on more than one occasion. The 20-year-old became a figure of fun for some in Italy, after conceding a number of penalties (particularly for handball offences), and showing worrying lapses in concentration at key moments.
For many, the jury was still out. For others, a decision had been reached: De Ligt wasn’t cut out for top level football. In fact, his fate had been decided so quickly, that there were rumours that the centre-back would be offloaded in the summer, with the Turin side keen to cut their losses.
Credit to Sarri however, he was much more cautious in reaching his own conclusion. De Ligt maintained his place in the Juve backline, and having formed a pretty strong understanding with partner Leonardo Bonucci, went from strength to strength.
The growth in the defender has been startling. In the space of 10 months, he has developed from a boy to a man, and not only that, he is now a leader in this Juve side. The first improvement to his game came in his consistency. Gone were the individual errors which cropped up at unfortunate moments during the opening months, and a steadier, much more self-assured player could be seen on the pitch.
The upturn in form stems from something far more natural and expected than physical changes, though. De Ligt has finally got to grips with Italy, Italian football and his brand new life. Flying the nest and starting from zero in new surroundings – and at an intimidating club like Juventus no less – can leave even the best of players feeling out of their depth, and allowing time to bed in and adapt is as important as any other on-field factor.
So with those months of experience under his belt, De Ligt is now looking the real deal. The Holland international is an incredibly physical and commanding presence in the backline, defending on the front foot and dominating his strikers with brutish strength.
The youngster reads the game excellently, too, and he possesses a knack for anticipating the movement of the forward, and arriving at the destination before his surprised adversary. And should he get caught out on the odd occasion, his speed across the ground allows him to make up any yards he may have lost on the fortunate striker.
He’s not afraid of a crunching tackle, either. In fact, the bullish defender is pretty partial to a perfectly-timed, but equally aggressive and soul-crushing sliding challenge, taking ball, man and just about anything else in his wake with him. As a neutral, they’re the sort of tackles that get you off your seat.
But if you’re still not sold, then the statistics are also on his side. De Ligt tops the Juventus charts for the most successful aerial duals, blocks and clearances performed per game. All qualitative and quantitative data points to one thing: the boy is a bit good.
And he’s a weapon at the other end of the pitch, too. De Ligt has bagged three goals for I Bianconeri this season, proving to be too hot to handle in the penalty area, when hurtling towards a whipped set piece. You do not want to get in his way.
A combination of poise, character, brute strength and intelligence, the starlet has all the makings of the player Juve were confident they’d signed 12 months ago. And for the Old Lady, the youngster’s bravery and determination could push them over the line in this relentless race with Lazio and Inter for the scudetto.
Strong attacks win you games, but strong defences win you titles. And from flop to top, De Ligt may just be the decisive factor in Juve’s title charge, after all.