Matthijs de Ligt, cool and powerful, shows Netherlands the way forward

In Thursday’s 2-0 win over Austria, Matthijs de Ligt transformed the picture of where the Netherlands Euro 2020 journey might go. His was a magisterial display at centre-back that made Frank de Boer’s team what they were not against Ukraine: a team.

Netherlands now also look like contenders for the championship having qualified for the last 16 with six points from their opening two games. Funny how a reinstalled high-class defender can be the missing piece of a puzzle that has Memphis Depay, Frenkie de Jong, Georginio Wijnaldum and Denzel Dumfries as its other constituent parts.

The opening 3-2 victory over Ukraine was a fraught affair in which the Netherlands looked incredibly imbalanced – lots of talent in attack but shaky and sluggish in defence, personified by the off-pace Daley Blind. De Ligt is the polar opposite of shaky and sluggish. This is a 21-year-old, a blend of cool and flintiness, whose abilities take in power, anticipation and timing, plus an aura that informs teammates: stick with me and all will be fine.

When Austria threatened to breach Maarten Stekelenburg’s goal, the Juventus man was there to snuff out danger in a manner Blind and company were unable to do when ceding a two-goal advantage in four minutes against Ukraine. The result – the Netherlands’ game against North Macedonia in Amsterdam on Monday is now little more than a training exercise. Qualification for the knockouts was marked by what De Ligt stated was “not a celebration, no”. But there was “poker and some guys can’t sleep so we played games”.

De Ligt has been content to characterise De Boer’s 3-5-2 as a work-in-progress, the manager having switched to this formation before the tournament. “We are growing, starting to understand the system better,” he said. “And every game we have to make these steps forward. If compared with two weeks ago we’ve made big steps.”

Working as a TV pundit, Marco van Basten criticised De Ligt for a first-half moment in which he followed Michael Gregoritsch. According to the legendary centre-forward, this allowed a free run at goal for Marcel Sabitzer. Van Basten concluded that De Ligt had gone to learn the art of defending in its spiritual home – Italy – and had “learned nothing”.

Further salt was added in the claim that De Ligt was the “leader of the defence” who needed to talk more against Austria. To this rather snap judgment of a player who had barely trained in the past two weeks because of injury, De Ligt had a neat response. “I’m almost proud of what Van Basten says. Of course, this critique is important, he has also played in Italy and I know how they feel about defence in Italy – which is out of the zone.

“So I understand that he said what he said. But in the end it’s a split-second decision [I make with Gregoritsch ] and he talks about the communication: we’ve communicated really well at the back. Maybe not perfectly but this can be improved on, which should be our motto: even though everything didn’t go perfect we should always improve.”

Delivered with a metaphorical shrug, this was a non-defensive answer from a young defender who clearly does not fear being scrutinised. This requisite quality for any footballer who wishes to evolve was also cited when answering a question from a nine-year-old girl who asked De Ligt why he “spits so much on the pitch?” After all, the inquisitor concluded: “You don’t do that anywhere else.” As was the case with Van Basten, he conceded a fair point was made.

De Ligt’s ambition is to keep making his point on the pitch as he goes about pursing the “dream” of helping the Netherlands emulate Van Basten’s class of 1988 and become European champions. Their chances are undeniably enhanced with him back in the side.