You wait years for any sort of talent, then two great ones come along at once.
That’s the feeling among Dutch fans now, and among the scouts of clubs such as Barcelona and Manchester City who have become regulars in Ajax’s Johan Cruijff Arena. Matthijs de Ligt, Ajax’s central defender, looked a man among boys even when facing Manchester United in the 2017 Europa League final aged 17. Now, at 19, he’s Ajax’s captain and an automatic choice for Netherlands. His teammate Frenkie de Jong, 21, recently lit up his first international as a starter, away against France, by repeatedly dribbling past Antoine Griezmann in midfield. (Sometimes, when one of De Jong’s outrageous risks comes off, you see him laugh while still on the ball.) And they both looked excellent in Netherlands’ beautiful 2-0 thrashing of France in the UEFA Nations League.
The two youngsters have helped spark the resurgence of Ajax, which this month could qualify for the Champions League knockout rounds for the first time since 2003, and Oranje, which beat Germany 3-0 at home in the UEFA Nations League last month and plays the return in Gelsenkirchen on Nov. 19. Yet even many well-informed foreign fans haven’t yet heard of either player. That should change by next summer, when each is expected to join a giant club.
De Jong was born in 1997 in the southern Dutch village of Arkel and was named after the British band Frankie Goes to Hollywood. His family was soccer-mad (his grandfather has a referee’s whistle carved into his gravestone), and the boy grew up playing on the village streets, often with an undersized ball, as recommended by Cruyff, the father of Dutch soccer. From age 8, he spent a decade in the academy of local professional club Willem II, a tiny kid with a mop of blond hair dribbling from central midfield. He frequently frustrated his coaches. When he got into Willem II’s first-team squad, the coach, Jurgen Streppel, a devotee of passion and hard work, would scream at him. De Jong didn’t care. He was devoted to soccer — “I think I was the last teenager to get WhatsApp,” he has said — but he insisted on playing it his way.
Marc Overmars, once a Willem II player and now Ajax’s technical director, claims to have scouted him. At 18, De Jong moved to Amsterdam for €300,000. By then, he had sprouted to 6 feet tall, but he still frustrated his coaches. The mantra at Ajax until recently was to “play simply”: one or at most two touches, and keep possession. But as De Jong told the Dutch magazine Voetbal International, “My quality is my intuition. I can’t just ignore that, can I? Then I’d be a player of whom there are a thousand of my age. Often I’d say I understood the coach, then do my own thing on the field.” And his thing was the dribble and the high-risk pass.
Even when lent back to Willem II, he struggled to get a game. Peter Bosz, coach of the bizarrely young Ajax team that reached the Europa League final, says, “Everyone could see that he could play soccer, but when we lost possession, I sometimes thought he walked too much.” De Jong featured in the Europa League final only as a late substitute.
De Ligt’s route to the top was much swifter. He was only about 8 when his local club in Abcoude, just outside Amsterdam, alerted Ajax to him. Ajax initially thought him too slow and out of shape, but a scout was reassured about his future body type when he spotted De Ligt’s slender father watching from the touchline, recounts Dutch soccer writer Henk Spaan. De Ligt broke into Ajax’s first-team squad at 16, absurdly young for a central defender. Within weeks he was moving fellow defenders into position. He also displayed a surprisingly light-footed dribble from the back, a sharp forward pass with either foot and a knack for heading in corners.
His nickname in the squad nowadays is “Fatty”, which is harsh — the babyface of a couple of years ago has hardened. His body still falls just short of ideal: though he’s 6-2 and built like a nightclub bouncer, he has a long torso and relatively short legs, which limit his speed on the turn. (A big defender, in Dutch soccer jargon, can look as if he moves “on tram rails”.)
Yet De Ligt compensates for so much with his perfectionism. Far from getting carried away with early fame, he is forever analyzing and working on his weak points. In his first months as a professional, he was sometimes caught out of position. His low came in March 2017, when he made his international debut in a crucial World Cup qualifier in Bulgaria. The Bulgarians targeted the 17-year-old every time he got the ball, forcing him into errors, and won 2-0. Coach Danny Blind, who had gambled on him, was sacked after the match and the Netherlands missed qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.
The experience would have traumatized many teenagers, but De Ligt publicly admitted his mistakes, learned, and moved on. His positioning improved by the month. A natural leader, he became Ajax captain at 18. His first agent, Barry Hulshoff, found himself constantly revising the career plan they had drawn up together, as De Ligt bulldozed milestones years ahead of schedule. Former Ajax player Ronald de Boer marvels, “He seems like he’s 30.”
Last December, De Ligt acquired a new partner in Ajax’s central defence: De Jong, who at 20 was finally breaking into the first team. Everyone knew De Jong wasn’t really a defender, but he had learned to do his duties. Bosz noted, “He intercepts balls, is constantly in motion — and that in combination with his wonderful play on the ball.” Above all, De Jong possessed an almost Franz Beckenbauer-esque gift for dribbling from central defense. If he lost the ball in a dangerous position, De Ligt was there to mop it up. But De Jong’s moonlighting as a defender ended after a 3-0 hammering by PSV Eindhoven in September (when De Ligt was out through injury). Now he plays from the back of midfield. Opponents regularly sacrifice a man to track him.
Whereas De Ligt is a recognizable type of player — the new Jaap Stam — De Jong is unique. He has changed the shape of Dutch fields. For years, the Dutch game had been horizontal, obsessed with possession, specializing in slow square balls that opponents delightedly intercepted. De Jong has made Dutch soccer vertical again. With Ajax, he often has more than 100 touches a game, as teammates automatically give him the ball. He receives it in motion, creates space by turning his marker, then runs almost upright, his head up, always looking forward. Former Dutch international Eljero Elia says, “He does things that an outside-left does, but from midfield: dribbling, cutting in front of his opponent at the right moment, keeping the ball at his feet long enough to create situations where you outnumber the opposition. I’ve never seen anyone who plays like Frenkie de Jong.”
He made his debut for Netherlands as a sub against Peru in September, which by chance was the last international match of the last great Dutch vertical player, Wesley Sneijder. By the end of the night, De Jong had made himself irreplaceable in the national team. He alone now supplies most of Oranje’s creativity.
The next move for him and De Ligt is abroad. Both have preserved their down-to-earth, cheery calm amid the growing hype. Even before De Jong became an Ajax regular, he seemed to have been pledged to Barcelona, as the natural heir of Xavi and Andres Iniesta, but now Manchester City is reportedly trying to muscle in and buy him for perhaps €80 million as early as January. The sums mentioned bewilder his parents. But Ajax, guaranteed a spot in the Champions League knockout rounds if rival Benfica loses at Bayern Munich on Nov. 27, will try not to sell until the summer.
De Ligt, meanwhile, stifled the few remaining doubts by shutting Robert Lewandowski out of Ajax’s 1-1 tie at Bayern Munich last month. He recently signed with Dutch-Italian superagent Mino Raiola. Now his most likely destinations appear to be Barca or Juventus.
After four years of humiliation, fans of Dutch soccer are getting excited again.