Earlier this year, the Juventus centre-back shared the tricks of his trade with UEFA.com.
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Juventus and Netherlands centre-back Matthijs de Ligt may still only be 20, but the former Ajax captain has already amassed plenty of experience.
In our latest Q&A from the archives, he opens up about his football education, the ingredients that make a great defender and his UEFA Champions League ambitions. De Ligt spoke to UEFA.com in February.
UEFA.com: You started out in a very attack-minded team at Ajax. How was that for you, being a defender?
Matthijs de Ligt: It was hard. It's hard to adapt because a lot of times you're one on one against a striker. In Italy, they prefer to have more men against a striker, so that's quite different, but I think it also made me the defender I am today. I'm not afraid to play one on one, I'm not afraid to defend high up the pitch, so that's something I learned in the school of Ajax.
Is it true you played in several positions in the Ajax youth teams to improve your technical ability?
Yes, that's correct. Until I was 15, I was an attacking midfielder. I played a lot in midfield, I scored some goals, gave some assists, and then suddenly they said to me it would be better for my career to go one position back, to centre-back. At the beginning, I was thinking: "I don't like being a defender," but now I'm starting to realise that the way I was brought up like a midfielder is helping me. So I'm really happy that this was the development I had to go through.
How important is technical ability now that you're at Juventus?
It's really important. Of course, Juventus are the biggest club in Italy, so obviously they want to attack, they want to win games. It's important to build out from the back, to show courage, to show that you want to play. And if you do that, you have to have good technical ability.
How do you make the decision when to tackle and when to hold back?
Last season with Ajax, I didn't make so many tackles. That's the most important thing: if you're making a tackle, you've already made a mistake in positioning or you're not close enough. At Ajax, I made maybe one tackle every three games. This season with Juventus, at some point I realised I was making more tackles, and I was like: "Hmm, why am I doing that?" And I started to analyse my game and I saw that maybe it's better to stay on your feet more and just go with your opponent instead of tackling.
Of course, for the eye, it's beautiful to see: everybody loves a good tackle. At the moment, Virgil van Dijk is one of the best in the world. You never see him make a tackle; he's always in the right spot at the right time, just standing there. That's the most important thing; it's not seen as much by supporters because they love a tackle, they love a really hard tackle, but a tackle is the last resort, the last option.
Do you think the art of tackling has changed over the years?
Yes, I think so. I think the role of defenders has also changed a lot. In the beginning, many years ago, you had a big centre-half who got to win headers, who was tough, who kicked the ball and said "Clear it." Now it's cleaner: you cannot make a rash tackle, because with VAR it's impossible to do that. You have to be cleaner: it's more about looking at the ball, anticipating where the ball goes.
What is the secret to heading as a defender?
It's a combination of a lot of things. I would say there are three important things: timing, power and also jumping. But what's most important is the courage to do it, to not be afraid, to show you are the guy who's going to head the ball. You can have a lot of power, you can have good timing, you can have good jumping ability, but if you don't have the courage to go into a duel and to really show that you want to win it, you will never win it.
Is composure something you always had or is it something you have learned to develop?
Composure is something that comes naturally. Composure is the most important thing, that mental aspect. Because if you are mentally not ready, your legs are going to collapse. It's important to have this balance. Obviously, last season with Ajax was amazing and everyone was mentally really happy. Everything went well so, as a result, you're really composed. In the middle of the season, we had some difficulties, I had some difficulties and then you're less composed as a consequence.
It's important to get this composure back. It's important to know for yourself if you're mentally right, if you're ready. Then nobody can stop me. That's the thing I started to realise and that's good too: to take a step back and see things that maybe you can improve. That's what I do.
You came agonisingly close to the Champions League final with Ajax last season. Is it your dream now to win the competition with Juventus?
It's important to believe in it. Every team has the dream of winning it because the teams are so close to each other right now. There are so many good teams, so you cannot say that you need to win it. We try our best, we know we have a good team, we have a lot of quality and we have to show on these nights that we want to win it. That's the most important part, but you must also have some luck to go through. Of course, we have the quality, but in the end we will see if we can win it.