Matthijs de Ligt was cheat code at 13 – but I had to fight coaches to make him ready for Man United

There was a time in the Ajax academy when Matthijs de Ligt was making none of his youth team coaches happy. The 13-year-old De Ligt was already heading up towards 6ft and could put on muscle quite easily. As a centre-back in that age group, he was almost like a cheat code.

At De Toekomst, Ajax’s impressive academy facility, they knew this was pointless for De Ligt’sdevelopment. He was getting nothing out of it. So Ruben Jongkind, the former Ajax head of academy development, and academy chief Wim Jonk took the decision to take De Ligt out of his comfort zone.

No longer would he marshall the defence for his own age group, but he would step up a year or two. And he would start playing in central midfield. It was visionary for the individual’s development, but it didn’t go down well with everyone.

“We saw already that he had a let’s say in the total footballer model that we used back then. We had a very good eye for the individual,” Jongkind, who first watched De Ligt when he was 11, told the Manchester Evening News.

“It was also the Cruyff plan to educate the individuals, focus on that and shift the focus from result-driven youth academy towards long-term development plans for each individual. So we were analyzing him. Okay, he has good technique, he has a proper physique, he understands the game very well and his mindset is really good. He’s a winner and also a team player. So people saw that he can become a great player.

“But then it was funny because the coaches wanted to keep him in their respective teams. So when he was U13 or U14 he was playing centre-back and of course, he had so much that it was hard for the opponents to score goals against him.”

Jongkind and Jonk looked at what De Ligt would need to make it as a centre-back at Ajax. He would have to play a high defensive line, he will need quick reactions, he will almost be more of a midfielder than a defender.

They felt he had to work on his agility and speed to get back when that high line was breached, to be quick enough and light enough on your feet to cover that space. It is the full package that has interested Manchester United in signing the now 24-year-old this summer.

“That’s why he should be moved up to the midfield and he should be playing in one or two teams higher because now the challenge is not there for him,” said Jongkind.

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