Matthjis De Ligt: A Pipe dream That Will, and More Importantly Should, Remain A Pipe dream for Liverpool Fans by Frank Harris

News that Liverpool colossus Virgil van Dijk is working to tempt his fellow countryman Matthijs De Ligt to Anfield has led to great excitement amongst sections of the Liverpool faithful. The Ajax academy graduate has been nothing short of a revelation since he cemented his place in the defences of both club and country during the 2017/18 season. Last year, De Ligt won the Johann Cruyff award for the most talented player in the Dutch Eredivise, all at the tender age of 18 years old. The defender has courted the interests of Europe’s finest teams including Juventus, Tottenham, Manchester City, Liverpool… The list goes on. However, the most significant interest that has been registered in De Ligt has come from Barcelona who greatly admire De Ligt’s total football approach to the game.

De Ligt’s technical ability with the ball at his feet is astounding for someone of his age (19). His maturity and calmness in pressure situations as well as his gift for picking passes, short and long, are reminiscent of established world class players such as Hummels, Pique, Ramos, Umtiti, Van Dijk who are in most cases a decade older than him and vastly more experienced. De Ligt himself has stated that his preferred destination would be to the Catalonian giants; an unsurprising admission considering the links between the two clubs that was established by Johann Cruyff.

For some Liverpool fans, this may represent another in a list of missed opportunities to sign players that would go on to blossom into world-class footballers. Recent lamentations evoke names such as Nabil Fekir, Piotr Zielinski, Christian Eriksen (noticing a theme of players we feel desperate for?) and more. However, for every Eriksen, there is a hundred more Mkhitaryan’s, Alex Teixeira’s, Memphis Depay’s and Carlton Cole’s (shudders…) Granted, De Ligt looks like a world beater by this point in his career already. He has absolutely everything in his locker to become a monstrous force in the game. The missed opportunity to sign a player of De Ligt’s quality will always be a cause for some degree of disappointment but no Liverpool fan should ignore the fact that the solution to such woes lies already in the ranks and is currently forming a beautifully solid partnership with a certain Dutchman who acts as role model and leader to both players at club and international level.

Joseph Gomez came to Liverpool from Charlton in the summer of 2015 as one of England’s finest youth prospects. A traditional centreback, Gomez has played across the entire backline during his career, offering tenacity and athleticism paired with blistering pace and a mature reading of the game. The defender has earned plaudits this season for his role in fortifying Liverpool’s once leaky defence into an impregnable fortress. Gareth Southgate has called him a “Rolls Royce” of a defender, an apt description for the burgeoning young talent. The Liverpool defence have only shipped 5 goals this season while providing 7 clean sheets in 12 games so far in the season. While the attack has stuttered and stalled in their efforts to reignite the spark seen in last season, the defence has become watertight under Van Dijk, Alisson, and Andrew Robertson. Gomez has flourished alongside a world-class defensive partner that may provide him with the tutelage and foundation to emulate his talents in years to come. Looking at some statistics will illustrate my view that the missed opportunity in signing De Ligt will prove to be an astute and rewarding decision for Liverpool FC.

On paper, the two defenders are remarkably similar in a number of ways. Joe Gomez is only two years senior to Matthjis De Ligt, both players are exactly the same height standing at 1.88m tall, and both players have league, champions league, and international experience for their respective and countries despite their ages. Physically they are both impressive, especially Gomez who has shown a turn of pace this season for Liverpool that has seen him make highlight reel recovery tackles on the fastest players in the league (looking at you Lucas Moura). Gomez and De Ligt have amassed 10 and 11 league appearances (935 and 990 minutes) between them this year respectively. However, reviewing the statistics at the very best highlights the superiority of Gomez to the most optimistic statistician, to the worst, it exemplifies the lack of need for De Ligt.

De Ligt’s statistics for Ajax are certainly impressive. He is averaging higher ratings than both Gomez and Van Dijk this season, scoring an impressive 7.54 compared to VVD’s 7.30 and Gomez’s 6.99. However, the lack of quality De Ligt faces in the Dutch league is impossible to ignore compared with Gomez who has been tasked with Tottenham, Arsenal, and Chelsea away as well as Man City at home in the league. Against the top 6, Liverpool have only conceded two goals so far this season, a feat which belongs to the entire defence with Gomez as an integral part of it. So for fairer comparisons, I will use De Ligt’s international statistics for Netherlands for two reasons. The quality of opposition that De Ligt during his international exploits has been of a far higher standard, akin the to the quality that Gomez has faced so far this season. Furthermore, De Ligt plays alongside Van Dijk and Wijnaldum for the national team just as Gomez does for club. Levelling the playing field in such a way is an imperfect science, but that is the danger of incorporating statistics into a game that needs to be watched to be understood. However, I believe that stats can colour or highlight aspects of the game. Playing against tougher opposition for the national team, De Ligt’s WhoScored rating drops to a 6.89, 0.10 points lower than Gomez’ rating of 6.99. So what do the stats tell us about the two hyped youngsters?

Defensively, De Ligt tops Gomez comfortably in most metrics in the context of league football. De Ligt’s stats (per game) for Ajax are comparable to Van Dijk for Liverpool; 3.3 won aerial duels to VVD’s 3.7, 0.50 fouls to VVD’s 0.70, 1.21 tackles VVD’s 1.10, 3.90 clearances to VVD’s monstrous 5.60. Clearly, there are parallels and reasons to be excited by the implication of a transfer, but, with all due respect, the Dutch Eredivisie holds no weight against its English counterpart. Boasting a pass completion percentage of 91.8% for a ball playing CB that plays an average of 66.5 passes per game is remarkably high, but Ajax have been walking the league most years and even if they haven’t, only PSV and Feyenoord a few seasons ago could come anywhere near them. To measure the quality of De Ligt, it would be more pertinent to use stats from his time playing international football.

Here, the stats are fairly similar once again; both players have begun budding international careers with Gomez making 5 appearances for England (the number would be a lot higher had it not been for his knee ligament damage), and De Ligt making 11 appearances for the Netherlands. Once tested on the international stage, De Ligt’s stats remain impressive but tail off significantly. Offensively, his pass completion percentage most surprisingly has been lower than that of Gomez (86.7% to 87.6% respectively.) Furthermore, Gomez makes more key passes per 90 minutes (0.60 to 0.20), completes more dribbles (0.40 to 0.30), suffers less dispossessions (0.10 to 0.30), and attempts fewer long balls than De Ligt (2.50 to 3.0). It is a surprising truth that Gomez beats out De Ligt’s stats in terms of possession and offense when the quality of teams played is more leveled. Defensively, Gomez is dribbled past 1.00 per game to De Ligt’s 0.50 which is an issue that needs to be sorted. However, it is a manageable issue that can be trained through good positioning which Gomez is often afforded a bit of a luxury due to his incredible recovery speed. Another point in favour is Gomez’s great skills in 1v1 situation. Gomez wins more tackles per 90 (1.50 to 1.00) and more aerials per 90 (1.90 to 1.50.) De Ligt beats out Gomez in interceptions (1.50 to 1.20) and clearances (4.50 to 3.00.) However, the stats must be fully taken into consideration and I believe that they paint a much more even picture than people would have you believe due to the hype around Ajax’s star talent.

Ultimately, the truth of the matter is that De Ligt is probably the most well-rounded young defender in the world with the highest ceiling in terms of potential. His stats for both club and country are remarkable for someone so young, and he will only get better as he matures and grows to understand his position even more. However, Joe Gomez cannot be ignored. He is exactly what Gareth Southgate called him during his first England call-up; a Rolls Royce defender. Just as De Ligt has it all, Gomez too can match him in most departments despite losing a year of his career to injury. There is more than one world class player in each position, and we do not need to sign every world class player to become a force to be reckoned with. We just have to believe a little more in our own players, and if Gomez continues to develop as he has done, then we already have a world class defender that will have cost us 5% of the current 70M touted for De Ligt.

Stats provided by Whoscored, Squawka, Opta, and Transfermarkt.

Frank Harris