Though it’s not official official just yet, it would take a massive change of heart to stop the inevitable: Matthijs de Ligt will be a Juventus player next season. And for as good and smart of a move as this is for both parties involved, the lasting effect of the Bianconeri signing the most coveted young defensive prospect on the planet could very well reverberate far beyond the walls of Juventus Stadium.
Once he finally signs on the dotted line, de Ligt will join modern soccer’s foremost home for the veneration of the central defender. In an era defined by attacking soccer and attacking players, of Barcelona’s MSN and Real Madrid’s BBC, Juventus have been the rare club defined by its commitment to defense. Their own BBC trio of center backs—Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci, and Giorgio Chiellini—has been the bedrock of one of European soccer’s most remarkable periods of domestic dominance. Many pretty passers and fearsome goal scorers have helped Juventus claim eight consecutive scudetti, earning much adulation along the way, but the members of that back line have always been the team’s true icons.
De Ligt has the honor of continuing that proud lineage, and the opportunity to grow and develop alongside some of the best defenders in the game. The Dutchman is already a 6-foot-2 mountain with all the strength, pace, tactical smarts, leadership, and defensive technique you’d want from a star center back—and all at the tender age of 19. With Chiellini and Bonucci both getting on in years, Barzagli out to pasture, and Juventus’s long-standing affinity for three center back formations, de Ligt will have every chance to learn from veterans while also playing loads, which is the ideal recipe for success for a young player. He’ll be given every opportunity to star and thrive, for as long as he’s in Turin—which actually might not be all that long.
The reason why the shiniest and newest of toys might not be sticking around Juventus for very long can be found in the terms of his contract. De Ligt has reportedly negotiated a release clause for himself that, according to Football Italia, will allow him to leave should some new club pay Juventus €150 million during the summer of 2022. After that summer, the price of the clause will steadily increase every subsequent year for the duration of his contract.
For Juventus, accepting this release clause—and offering the player a fat salary, rumored to be around €7.5 million a year with add-ons and bonuses that could get him to €12 million salary he was reportedly after—was likely the only way they could get a player of de Ligt’s caliber and potential to sign. Remember, de Ligt is handily the best young defensive prospect in the world, and was the apple of the eyes of several of the biggest clubs in the world. (At varying points over this past year, both Barcelona and PSG were absolutely sure they’d locked down de Ligt’s services.) Juventus may well be a great team, but still, they don’t tend to find themselves signing players like that.
Why did he choose Juventus? It seems pretty obvious that de Ligt’s preferred destination was and maybe still is Barcelona, or at the very least a club of that stature. Barça qualify as one of the few clubs at the very top of the game, and with the historical affinities between Barcelona and Ajax, plus the presence of de Ligt’s good friend Frenkie de Jong out in Catalonia, the Barça-de Ligt marriage seemed practically perfect.
The problem is the timing. A move to Barça (or even potentially Real Madrid, just to throw in the only other club that can compare with Barcelona in historical size and import and current-day success) this summer wasn’t ideal. In leaving Ajax and the under-competitive Dutch league, what de Ligt needed most was a step up in difficulty and a steady diet of minutes on the pitch. Barça offered him that step up into highest level of the game, but they couldn’t guarantee him the importance to the team, from both a playing time and salary perspective, that he was interested in. He might be the spiritual heir to Gerard Piqué, but Piqué doesn’t need an heir just quite yet.
So, then, de Ligt would need a stepping stone club before ascending to the Barcelona-Real Madrid tier. But finding a stepping stone club is devilishly hard as a superstar-in-the-making in 2019. Because de Ligt is so good already, and because young, high-potential players are so wildly expensive, there were only a small number of clubs that could afford the transfer price tag Ajax stuck on their crown jewel. On top of that, if de Ligt were to go to a stepping stone club and develop into the type of player his potential hints at, he could price himself out of a second move to the Barça-Real tier, locking himself into a second-tier club because no one could afford his transfer fee in two or three or four years.
That, more than any other reason, is probably why de Ligt is on the verge of signing with Juve rather than PSG. PSG probably have a better chance of reaching the Barça-Real tier in the near future than Juve because of their unlimited cash reserves. The Qatari-owned club probably also offered him an even bigger salary than the one he’ll get in Italy.
However, PSG have demonstrated for years an obstinate unwillingness to let their players leave on anything other than the club’s own terms. (For examples, see Marco Verratti, Marquinhos, Adrien Rabiot, potentially Neymar, and maybe even Kylian Mbappé.) If de Ligt signed with PSG, and PSG never made the jump to the next level, or if de Ligt simply found himself wanting a new challenge somewhere else after a few years, he most likely would’ve had a hell of a time fighting his way out of Paris. His only surefire way out would’ve been to leave as a free transfer at the end of his contract, and the Rabiot case shows that PSG don’t even make that easy.
This is what makes the Juventus deal so clever. By joining Juve now, de Ligt takes the next step at a great club in one of the best leagues, with a salary, transfer fee, and center back situation that practically guarantees him tons of playing time to get better. By predicating his signing with Juve on getting a release clause, de Ligt ensured himself a no-fuss chance to exit should three or four years pass, he becomes the best central defender in the world, and he finds himself wanting to trade up from Juventus to Barça/Real in the same way he’s now traded up from Ajax to Juve. On the flip side, should he suffer serious injuries with Juve or fail to develop in the way everyone imagines, he’ll still be able to rake in the huge salary he’s on now while plotting his next move. It’s pretty much a can’t-lose situation for him.
The hope for Juventus has to be that de Ligt falls in love with Turin and the club, the team is able to surround de Ligt with a perennial Champions League contender the likes of which he couldn’t improve on elsewhere, and thus he decides to stay there for the long haul. But even if Juve fail to convince him to stay, they’d still potentially have gotten three great seasons out of him with a shot to double their reported initial investment of €75 million. Even for Juve, there is not too much risk, and an enormous potential reward.
Aside from impatient Barcelona fans who wanted de Ligt in Blaugrana now, this deal is the best possible outcome for everyone involved. The bigger clubs that missed out on de Ligt now have a set date for when his services become available, plus a little more evidence to determine if he’s worth it; Juventus get the most exciting defensive prospect in the world for his developing years, and maybe even beyond; de Ligt gets a bump in pay and prestige by moving from the Netherlands to Italy, while keeping the door open for an even bigger move down the line.
More young stars-in-the-making would do well to follow in de Ligt’s footsteps. Too often, young players find themselves snatching up a huge club’s offer before they are ready and wind up wasting away their once-promising careers sitting on the bench waiting for minutes that never come (see: Malcom at Barcelona). The other side of that is when players stick with a mediocre club too long and find themselves trapped by their own value. The big Dutch lad appears to have avoided either fate by negotiating himself a preplanned exit strategy without screwing over Juventus, and it’ll be interesting to see if anyone else follows suit.