Can De Jong & De Ligt inspire Dutch resurgence?

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June 3, 2021
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    De Ligt and De JongMatthijs de Ligt made his Netherlands debut in 2017 with Frenkie de Jong first called up the following year

    In 2012, Wim Jonk told the Ajax board they would laugh at a reluctance to invest an extra 200,000 euros into the club's academy because they would have 200m euros sitting in the bank five years later.

    Jonk's promise took a little longer to deliver but the Eredivisie champions have surpassed that figure in the past two summers alone by selling on their best young talent, with the big-money departures of Matthijs de Ligt to Juventus and Frenkie de Jong to Barcelona accounting for a large chunk of that windfall.

    Now the talented duo who spearheaded Ajax's unbelievable run to the Champions League semi-final in 2019, and who suffered last-minute heartbreak at the hands of Tottenham, will be crucial to the Netherlands' chances of winning a first major tournament since their European Championship success in 1988.

    It has been seven years since the Dutch even qualified for a finals, having finished runners-up at the 2010 World Cup and third four years later.

    It has been a struggle to regroup in the aftermath of an era featuring world-class players such as Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder, but the Dutch's progress to the final of the 2019 Nations League was an encouraging sign.

    It is now up to the nation's emerging youngsters to inspire a new generation in orange and their pursuit of Euros glory begins with a friendly against Scotland on Wednesday.

    "If you talk about Matthijs and Frenkie it is basically where everything starts in the build-up and they also know each other very well," Ruben Jongkind, Ajax's former head of talent development, tells BBC Sport.

    "Matthijs and Frenkie are your core, the pre-architects of the build-up and also the defence. It is super important to have those two class players in your team."

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    'De Ligt is showing world-class potential'

    As De Ligt lay face down on the turf in the Johan Cruyff Arena after Lucas Moura's last-second winner in the Champions League semi-final second leg in 2019, it marked the end of a 10-year cycle in Amsterdam for the Ajax skipper.

    The imposing defender joined the club's academy as a nine-year-old and left for Juventus a decade later in a deal worth up to £76m.

    He is one of the most successful products of Ajax's "Plan Cruyff", which saw a revamp of the academy system written and implemented by Jongkind and Jonk after Cruyff returned to the board in 2011.

    The "Velvet Revolution" put an emphasis on developing an attractive, attacking style of play and producing youngsters for the first team, with individual plans influenced by other sports used to help academy graduates reach their potential.

    "You can't separate his story from the changes we made," explains Jongkind. "At under-15 he played as a centre back but the problem was he was already mature, so he was big for his age and strong but he lacked speed of action like decision-making and 360-agility with the ball."

    The Ajax coaches decided to move the young De Ligt into a defensive midfield role to work on those characteristics and played him up several age groups.

    "He ran not so efficiently or graciously, so we needed to change his movement style," adds Jongkind. "We were able to provide the right challenges for Matthijs at the right time.

    "He was a bit clumsy before, so he worked very hard to change that with the performance coaches."

    De LigtMatthijs De Ligt made 36 appearances in all competitions for Juventus after missing the start of the season with a shoulder injury

    It helped forge a rounded centre-back, comfortable in possession and Juventus knew what they were getting when they made De Ligt one of the most expensive defenders of all time.

    He had scored the goal that knocked them out of the Champions League quarter-finals several months earlier, while the Dutchman was Europe's reigning Golden Boy award winner and Ajax's youngest captain.

    After winning Serie A in his first season and recovering from a shoulder injury at the beginning of this campaign, the 21-year-old has been a regular in a Juventus side that struggled to a fourth-placed finish after almost a decade of dominance.

    "The potential is there to be world class and Matthijs is already showing it," says Jongkind. "He is a strong holder in Juventus at 21 years of age, it's amazing."

    In the absence of Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk, De Ligt will be even more crucial to Netherlands and head coach Frank de Boer this summer.

    "I am pleased with how he is doing and I see the Matthijs that everybody wants to see, so for me he is doing really well," De Boer tells BBC Sport.

    "He was already captain of Ajax at 19. He has the personality to do that, with Giorgio Chiellini as his mentor he understands what the club asks from him, inside and outside the pitch.

    "He is now playing every game and maybe Juventus is not in the best moment but still they are playing very intensive games."

    'De Jong has a big influence for Barca'

    Frenkie de JongFrenkie de Jong played 37 times in La Liga last season, scoring three goals and making four assists

    In De Jong, De Boer has another key player whose club side are struggling to maintain their usually impeccable standards.

    The 24-year-old midfielder has shown both his undeniable talent and versatility this season, occupying a number of positions for Ronald Koeman's side, with his best performance for Barcelona coming in the Copa del Rey final when he scored and laid on two assists.

    Koeman has spoken openly about how he and Lionel Messi are big fans of the Dutchman, while De Boer has also discussed De Jong's impact with the former Netherlands boss.

    "I have spoken with Ronald and Frenkie is doing fantastic," says De Boer. "Everybody sees that he has a very big influence in the Barcelona squad right now.

    "Of course, Messi always has an impact but you see already what an importance De Jong is in the team and players are recognising that and it is also a compliment to Ronald, who gave him that confidence.

    "He has played three different roles, sometimes as a central defender and did really well, he played as the controlling midfielder and lately, when Sergio Busquets has played, he's played as an attacking right midfielder."

    De Boer, who understands what it means to represent Barcelona having also made the move from Ajax to the Nou Camp, adds: "Frenkie is involved with chances and scores goals, so it is good for me to know also that he has all those qualities and is almost multi-functional.

    "I am really happy for him but also it is good for our team that if there are some doubts with players that I always can put him in a position that he has already played with Barcelona.

    "He is doing fantastic right now and hopefully he can keep that form for us."

    'He has incredible genetic talent'

    De Jong's rise to prominence differs slightly to friend and national team-mate De Ligt, in that he was overlooked as a youngster because he was so skinny.

    He was not even on an Ajax scouting list containing hundreds of the best prospects in the Netherlands handed to Cruyff, Jonk and Jongkind when they arrived in 2011.

    De Jong instead got his break at Willem II, making his Eredivisie debut two days before his 18th birthday, despite concerns over his stature.

    Ajax belatedly pounced with director of football Marc Overmars determined to get the midfielder, though there had been little interest shown from other big European clubs, and Jongkind was immediately impressed.

    'Our wait is over' – Watch the BBC trail for our Euro 2020 coverage

    "I have never seen physical values like that before, incredible," he explains.

    "He was the top in explosivity and because he has such good ball control, in combination with his physicality, he creates a lot of time for himself to make better decisions on the field.

    "He was really amazing. He came into the new culture we created, of training individual elements from other sports – athletics, triathlon, American Football, judo – world-class coaches and athletes we brought in to create a top-sport elite environment and that drove a lot of players into professionalism from a very early age."

    Jongkind, who is now working with Jonk at FC Volendam, has continued to follow the midfielder's rise.

    "De Jong has an incredible amount of genetic talent," he adds. "He is also still very young so it is no doubt with these kinds of players you can't expect them to play every match 100% without errors."

    The 'raw diamond' spotted by Bergkamp

    Donny van de BeekDonny van de Beek joined Manchester United in a £40m last summer but has made just four starts in the Premier League

    And then there is Donny van de Beek. A player former Ajax and Netherlands great Dennis Bergkamp earmarked as a future first-teamer when he was 11 and one who was also prised away from the Dutch club for a relatively large fee.

    Van de Beek was supposed to complete the triumvirate of former Ajax products leading the Netherlands at the European Championship, but his career has stuttered since joining Manchester United, though he has a place in De Boer's squad.

    "He was already a 'Bergkamp' when he was 11," says Jongkind. "I worked individually with Donny on his movement and Bergkamp said to me then – I still remember where it was and which field – he said 'Donny, he has big potential, he has potential for the first team, I see how he recognises the spaces'.

    "Dennis saw that as very good so early – it was a little bit of a raw diamond that had to be polished a lot.

    "Where he dramatically developed was technically because Jonk used him all the time as a "six", but we said he should also develop at eight to improve his attacking skills and recognise spaces when you can get into the box, how to create space for another.

    "A little bit more dynamism was needed because he was very good at passing, but for his development it was better to play in other positions too.

    "When he started to play in this team together with the others in the last years of the academy, between 15 and 18, he really started to develop hugely."

    And Jongkind backs the creative midfielder to come through his recent setback.

    "I think he will get through and adapt at a certain point," he adds. "Development goes in bumps and he is still way below the age of optimal performance, which is 27/28, so give him some time."


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