With Dutch centre-back Matthijs de Ligt reportedly asking to leave Ajax this summer, Liverpool should make the youngster a priority target.
De Ligt has enjoyed a breakthrough campaign with the Eredivisie giants this season, establishing himself as a key player under Marcel Keizer and, more recently, Erik ten Hag.
Having made his debut for the Netherlands last year, the 18-year-old has now started in each of their last three games, including an impressive turn against Portugal in March.
But after making 62 appearances for the Ajax first team, De Ligt has set his sights on a move away from Amsterdam, according to Dutch publication De Telegraaf.
They claim that, having appointed Mino Raiola as his agent, the defender has informed director of football Marc Overmars and chief executive Edwin van der Sar of his desire to leave.
The former Premier League duo are faced with a big decision over De Ligt’s future, as he has the potential to be a cornerstone of the Ajax back line for well beyond the next decade.
But with Bayern Munich, Tottenham, Man City and Barcelona already credited with an interest, if they do opt to cash in on their prized asset, Liverpool should be vying for a big-money move this summer.
Rise and rise in Amsterdam
De Ligt joined the Ajax academy at the age of nine, and having progressed through the youth ranks and into the Jong Ajax side in 2016, he made his debut for the first team just one month later.
Starting alongside German veteran Heiko Westermann in KNVB Beker clash with Willem II at the Amsterdam ArenA, De Ligt made an immediate impact, firing a header beyond Konstantinos Lamprou to put Ajax 2-0 up on their way to a 5-0 victory.
The teenager made sporadic appearances between then and the end of the year, but was given an opportunity to cement himself in the starting side at the beginning of 2017.
Speaking to Goal in March, Van der Sar enthused how the prodigious defender “never looked back,” and having played a prominent role in Ajax’s run to last season’s Europa League final he is now a key cog.
He played 39 matches this season for Ajax, missing just two, wearing the captain’s armband several times along the way.
Promise and prominence
Though he stands at just 6’2″, which is not the tallest for his position, De Ligt is a physically imposing talent who employs an aggressive, front-footed approach.
Only five centre-backs in the Dutch top flight have won more headers so far this season (102), which is comparable with Dejan Lovren (103) and more than any other Liverpool player.
He has averaged 1.8 interceptions per 90 minutes in the Eredivisie, too, which is level with compatriot Virgil van Dijk (1.8).
As a product of the Ajax academy, De Ligt is naturally also a composed, ball-playing centre-back, completing 89.3 percent of his attempted passes this term.
He also averages 3.4 accurate long passes per 90 minutes; not a massive tally, but importantly averaging a 55 per cent success rate with those longer balls.
That compares favourably to the Reds’ trio of Klavan (53 percent long pass accuracy), Matip (51 per cent) and Lovren (48 per cent).
His consistency and importance to Ajax this term is all the more impressive when considering he lost last season’s regular partner in Davinson Sanchez.
And it’s not just on the pitch where De Ligt’s influence is felt at Ajax.
Team-mate Max Wober stated last year that the defender was a key figure in the dressing room, per Goal.com.
“Matthijs is one of those who makes the difference in the dressing room.
“Just before a match he takes to the floor and makes sure everyone is super sharp and wants to go all-in.”
That image of leadership and mental strength was echoed by Ronald de Boer.
“The great thing about Matthijs is his natural superiority.
“Despite only being 18 he’s already busy with the people around him. The development [he’s] going through is amazing.”
A natural-born leader, a complete defender and a mature, reliable performer at the back. Not bad for someone who will only just turn 19 by the start of next season.
Van Dijk’s arrival at Anfield in January heralded an upturn in fortunes at the back, without question.
Shortly after, Trent Alexander-Arnold became the last right-back standing and made the position his own on merit—a big turnaround in the back line from early-season rotations and confusions.
In the centre, though, while Van Dijk rules supreme, there remain question marks over his long-term partner.
Regardless of an upturn in fortunes for Lovren alongside the No. 4, there are still parts of his game susceptible to costly errors.
That aside, both he and Matip have spent large portions of the last two years sidelined through injury, leaving Jurgen Klopp with a crisis at the back at times.
Reliability isn’t just about the right decisions on the pitch, after all.
Klavan, meanwhile, fourth-choice this term, turns 33 in October. He’s not a long-term option and Gomez’s latest setback means he’ll probably miss at least part of pre-season and another opportunity to establish himself as a starter alongside Van Dijk.
A big signing, a key signing, a statement signing at the back to herald a new era of a settled partnership at the back for the Reds: De Ligt would tick every box and could feasibly partner his compatriot for half a dozen years.
For club and country.
The idea of developing a go-to partnership at the back is not a new one, but it’s remarkable how often it doesn’t pan out.
Since the days of Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypia, the Reds have rarely put together a duo who were both frequently available and capable of leading the team to the top.
Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel were supposed to be the successor duo, of course, but while the Dane was exceptional he was far too injury prone to rely on. Skrtel was more resilient, but never achieved true levels of greatness.
Brendan Rodgers, thereafter, hoped he had overseen deals which would see the back line taken care of for a decade, with the signings of Mamadou Sakho and Tiago Ilori.
“Centre-halves are so hard to find,” the ex-boss said at the time.
“You look at some teams and they have ageing centre-halves because it is a struggle to get a really good one.
“We had a chance to do that and protect the club for maybe the next ten years and that is what we have done.”
Fair to say, neither quite panned out. Sakho was impressive in stretches but suffered injury and disciplinary issues before being offloaded by Klopp, while Ilori spent most of his time out on loan.
He’s now at Reading, where he started 26 Championship games this season.
So how would Van Dijk and De Ligt be different?
For starters, they’re already accomplished and preparing to become long-term partners on the international scene.
Ronald Koeman’s first games in charge saw him captain the Reds’ No. 4 and start with the pair of them, plus Stefan de Vrij, in defence.
They are already beginning to build a platform which can help the Dutch national side re-emerge after a period of poor performance.
Technically, they have every attribute covered between them and, while De Vrij is adept at stepping out and making a tackle on the front foot, Van Dijk complements that by being always prepared to cover across and in behind.
He’s a leader, they both are, making communication—between each other and to those around them—easier and more certain, something the Reds have lacked for too long.
Jordan Henderson might wear the armband, but every team needs more than one character to point the way to victory. The finest Reds sides had multiple, but until recently it was arguable this current team had barely any.
Two at the back, a couple in midfield and the non-stop work rate from Roberto Firmino in attack, and suddenly the very core of the team is one to inspire and demand success.