Matthijs de Ligt is years ahead of schedule.
The nature of the centre-back position is that it requires a physical presence and plenty of experience. Such qualities are rare in young players, most of whom do not physically mature until the age of 23 or 24, and who haven’t been around long enough to learn the role inside out.
Sergio Ramos, for example, was 27 before he really acquired the world class label he carries today. Virgil van Dijk was nearly 28 when he got his £75m transfer to Liverpool, while Harry Maguire was considered a signing to improve long-term when he joined Manchester United at the age of 26.
In bygone years, Nemanja Vidic turned 26 during his first full season in the Premier League after arriving in England as an unknown prospect from Spartak Moscow. Similarly, Ricardo Carvalho was 26 when he had a breakout season with Porto and joined Chelsea.
Being a world class centre-back at 21 is close to unheard of. But De Ligt is breaking the mould and he stands out precisely because he has so much more yet to give.
If young centre-backs do make a breakthrough at first-team level, it is not uncommon for them to be ‘hidden’ in a full-back position, out of the immediate line of fire. De Ligt was in at the deep end and he has been ahead of the curve ever since.
Little more than a month after his 17th birthday, he made his senior debut for Ajax in a KNVB Cup tie in September 2016 against fellow Eredivisie side Willem II – he also scored that day to make history as the club’s second youngest ever goalscorer behind modern legend Clarence Seedorf.
Two months after that, De Ligt was a starter in the Europa League against Panathinaikos as Ajax kept a clean sheet and won 2-0. He become more involved with the first-team again in the spring of that campaign and played every minute in the Europa League from the last 16 onwards.
When De Ligt lined up against Manchester United in the final that season, he was still three months shy of his 18th birthday. Ajax lost the game but nothing fazed him and The Guardian remarked at the time that the youngster had ‘strength and doggedness beyond his years’.
Having turned 18 at the beginning of the 2017/18 season, De Ligt started all but one of Ajax’s 34 Eredivisie games, missing that one only because he was suspended. By the latter stages of the season he was already captaining the team – still just 18 - and by the end of the year had been named Golden Boy for 2018.
That upward trajectory enjoyed another sharp incline in 2018/19 when De Ligt wore the armband virtually every week for Ajax. He was already a known talent thanks to his meteoric rise over the previous 18 months, but that season this precocious starlet went stratospheric.
"He will be the best centre-back in the world in two years."- Ronald Koeman, speaking in January 2019
De Ligt led Ajax to within a kick of the 2019 Champions League final. The mostly young side were collectively stunning against reigning champions Real Madrid in the last 16 and De Ligt himself got the winner against Juventus in the quarter-finals, proving his value in both boxes.
That he was captaining such a high achieving team at 19 when older players like Daley Blind, Dusan Tadic and former skipper Joel Veltman were in the side was a remarkable show of faith from the Ajax staff – and, given how the team performed under his leadership, clearly not unjustified.
People say the best way to impress a club is to play well against them. By that stage, Ajax coach Erik ten Hag had already admitted De Ligt would be leaving the Amsterdam club at the end of the season and Juve would have known then that they had to have him.
Cristiano Ronaldo was roped in to try and sell Juve to De Ligt, approaching him on the pitch when his Portugal faced De Ligt’s Netherlands in the 2019 UEFA Nations League finals that summer. He weighed up his options, of which there were plenty, and eventually chose the Old Lady.
After a €75m transfer, it had been Juve’s intention to ease De Ligt into his new surroundings in Serie A. That plan had to be abandoned when Giorgio Chiellini suffered ACL damage one game into the season, thrusting the Dutch youngster, then only just 20, onto the centre stage.
It wasn’t all plain sailing for De Ligt, but to expect any different would have been unfair. He was, and still is, incredibly raw, while Juve were also dealing with tactical tweaks under the new direction of coach Maurizio Sarri that initially impacted the whole squad.
By his own admission it was a tough start, but the progress was there.
"There were already a lot of eyes on me. Then there's even more pressure, but I knew in training I felt good. In games there was still a bit of adaptation. Step by step I improved,” he said in a chat with teammate Wojciech Szczesny for Polish YouTube channel Foot Truck.
By the end of that debut season in Turin, De Ligt had played 39 times in all competitions and was a Serie A champion. Having found his feet, he will only get better as he continues to grow, adapt, learn and gain invaluable experience that he is simply old enough to have yet.
To imagine that most elite centre-backs don’t reach this level, already among the world’s best, until their mid to late twenties and De Ligt only turned 21 in August is frightening. He is yet to win very much so far because of his age and has another 10 or even 15 years ahead of him. In that time, records could tumble and he could easily re-write the history books.
That, in essence, sets De Ligt apart from his peers, and is just one reason why he's world class.