How good will de Ligt be?
When Matthijs de Ligt eventually signs for Juventus, for a reported €80m, the consensus opinion will be that they’ve bought the best under 21 defender in the world, and a player that is likely to become the best centre back in the world. But how certain can we be that this will be the case?
How players progress over time is a fascinating subject and all the more pertinent as clubs buy younger and younger players for huge sums. The general theory on player progression over time is that they follow a fairly standard age curve, depending on their position, as shown above.
But what about the players who reached the top level in their teens – are they likely to follow a similar curve, or are they already closer to their maximum level because they matured earlier than their peers? Looking and listening to De Ligt you could imagine him being nearer 25 than 19, and photos of him playing in youth teams certainly show that he matured before most.
Our Player Model allows us to look back on how top young players, like de Ligt, have developed over time. Remarkably, only 54% of the top 50 players aged 21 or younger at the end of the 2012/13 season are rated higher now, despite being around their expected peak age.
This pattern is consistent with the biggest transfers of players 21 and under in that year (table below). Of the twenty players purchased for €10m or more only Eden Hazard, Philippe Coutinho, Marco Veratti, Paulo Dybala and Mateo Kovacic improved markedly.
While early maturity explains some of this lack of improvement – it also reflects some of the randomness and unpredictability of young player development. The best under-21 players probably had a lot of things go their way – a head coach who took a shine to them, a first-team player who got injured, or maybe just one training session that impressed a senior pro – which elevated them to getting minutes in the first team. The player might gain some form and confidence – but at some point this ‘luck’ in the development process is bound to dry up.
Indeed, it’s possible to over- or underreact to short-term performances even with peak age players. We are quite convinced that Van Dijk will continue to be the best centre half in the world next season – despite him never being in the conversation when at Southampton – and that Mesut Özil is now finished despite being one of the best attacking midfielders over the last 9 years.
De Ligt, meanwhile, is probably at a high enough level already to be a Juventus mainstay for the next decade or so – but history shows that it’s not as certain as we often think that he will kick on again and become truly ‘world class’. When signing a breakthrough prospect it’s important to remember that age curves are anything but certain.