Frenkie de Jong
Frenkie de Jong announced himself on the world stage as a key player in Ajax’s sensational team of 2018/19. That side included Hakim Ziyech, Donny van de Beek and Matthijs de Ligt, all of whom also earned big-money moves away from Ajax shortly after an incredible Champions League run that took them to within seconds of reaching the final. De Jong was integral as Ajax, then managed by now-Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag, captured the imagination with eye-catching wins at Real Madrid and Juventus earlier in the knockout stages. It wasn’t long before Barcelona made their move, signing De Jong in a £65m deal.
Ten Hag’s move to Manchester United in 2022 and a bizarre financial situation at the Camp Nou led to speculation about De Jong's future in Spain, and potential transfer to Old Trafford. However, the summer passed without a deal being done and De Jong has remained at Barcelona to work under manager Xaxi. The great Spanish midfielder says he sees himself in De Jong's game.
"I see Frenkie facing the game, " he said. "I myself, when I was a footballer and I had my back to the game, I didn't feel comfortable. When he is facing the game, he is a spectacular footballer. He has a lot of power, he's physically strong and he has the ability to play the final ball."
De Jong’s technical and tactical ability means he has the potential to improve just about any midfield; particularly in a team that wants to dominate possession and break down deep defensive blocks. The Dutchman is brilliant in possession, able to protect the ball under pressure, and maintain and advance possession. He is also comfortable playing off one touch or holding on to the ball for longer.
He is effective in every third of the pitch. In the build-up phase, he does an important job in helping his team play out from the back. In the midfield third, he takes responsibility in the creative phase. And, in the final third, he is happy to burst forward to join the finishing phase. In all three phases, he is keen to get on the ball.
De Jong gave an early example of his talents when playing for Ajax in a match against rivals PSV Eindhoven in December 2017. Still only 20 and playing at centre-back against the eventual Eredivisie champions, he received a pass on the edge of the Ajax penalty area. Spotting a gap in midfield, he burst through the centre of the pitch and, with no thought for a more cautious option, surged deep into the PSV half before sliding a superb through ball in behind for David Neres (below). Shortly after, Ajax scored their first goal in an eventual 3-0 win.
When Ajax signed Daley Blind in the summer of 2018, De Jong was moved into midfield, where he usually played as part of a double pivot alongside Lasse Schöne. In that role, he had the freedom to attack from deeper positions and provide penetration through his passing and ambitious, assertive dribbling.
There are echoes of Real Madrid great Luka Modric in De Jong’s displays in a deep midfield position, as well as a hint of the disguised passing typical of Barcelona teammate Sergio Busquets. His ability to break lines (below) helps his teams progress play quickly through the thirds. The timing of his release is a particular skill; he can draw an opponent in before swiftly moving the ball through the resulting gap.
He is improving defensively, too. After he first moved into midfield, he initially struggled with recovery runs – his work rate in possession wasn't always matched by his out-of-possession efforts – but he made improvements in that regard under Ten Hag’s guidance. Breaking play up isn’t one of his main strengths, and he sometimes dives into challenges. This can mean he can be caught out at defensive transitions, and is often beaten by fast and agile opponents, but errors of judgement have become a less common feature of his game as he has matured. De Jong is a wonderfully capable single pivot in possession, but he is at his best when he has a more defensive-minded, ball-winning midfield partner alongside him.
In the 2021/22 campaign, Barcelona mostly used a 4-3-3 shape under Xavi. Busquets was the first-choice single pivot, with De Jong operating further ahead as one of the two number eights. He usually started on the left of the three, although he also appeared on the right on occasion.
De Jong is not one to stick to his position, though, and constantly moves around midfield looking for the ball. When he moves into positions on the right of central midfield, he often looks to play penetrative passes to runners in behind. Xavi asks his wingers to stay wide for as long as possible, giving De Jong a target for his balls in behind, and he has the vision and ability to find these runs. With Busquets dropping, the right-back moves into a narrow position to allow De Jong to push slightly higher. This gives him the freedom to receive in the right inside channel beyond the opposing midfield line, before driving at the opposition defence (below).
De Jong also happily drifted wider to receive, where he combined with the right winger. They would then use the movements of a dropping centre-forward, who pulls opposing centre-backs out of the back line, to find gaps for De Jong to exploit with his through balls or to burst into with the ball.
Another consequence of the dropping centre-forward is that the opposition’s central midfielders may prioritise covering and screening forward passes into the forward’s feet. This gives De Jong more time to receive, which makes it even more likely that he will be able to play forwards.
On the left, De Jong still looks to get into advanced positions and penetrate through the inside channel. But with Barcelona left-back Jordi Alba more likely to overlap, he does have to drop in to cover more often. From this position underneath the ball, De Jong provides an outball through which play can then be switched or recycled (below). He often combines with Busquets with the aim of creating a passing lane to the dropping centre-forward, while they will also look to find the overlapping left-back or left-winger. De Jong does not get many assists, but he often provides the pre-assist with a pass that breaks the last line before a low, first-time ball across goal.
De Jong is required to cover on defensive transition more often on the left, where he finds himself deeper than he tends to be on the right. On this side, he aims to lock the opposition’s play by the touchline. He does a good job of slowing play down, allowing Alba to recover, with Busquets then protecting the space on De Jong’s inside shoulder. This encourages him to engage in duels and make attempts to regain possession, with the knowledge that Busquets is covering behind him.
Earlier in De Jong’s Barcelona career, he featured heavily in a deeper role as a single pivot. From deeper positions, he uses his dribbling to evade pressure and break lines. His ability on the ball and willingness to receive under pressure mean he can play a key role in the build-up phase. If passing options are limited, he can twist, turn and wriggle away from pressure before looking to progress the ball forward with a pass from a better angle.
His dribbling also helps him connect with the full-backs. He carries the ball from the centre towards the touchline before then looking to progress play into the number eights, who pick up similar positions to De Jong when he plays as a number eight. His dribbling and ability to hold on to the ball in deeper positions help to draw opponents forward, which creates space further up the pitch (above). De Jong will often then miss out the nearest teammate, playing directly into the high and wide forwards that Xavi uses. He is therefore able to turn defence into attack very quickly. The football that Xavi’s Barcelona plays encourages De Jong to transition quickly to attack when the opportunity arises.
A hugely talented midfielder who has already proven he belongs at the top of the game, De Jong will continue to be a big asset at Barcelona – or elsewhere, should a move away from the Camp Nou ever materialise.
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Author: The Coaches' Voice