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Frenkie de Jong

AFC Ajax to Barcelona, €75m

A product of Willem II, Frenkie de Jong worked his way through the club’s youth ranks before making his Eredivisie debut against Den Haag in May 2015, two days before his 18th birthday. Signed by Dutch giants Ajax that summer, the young midfielder spent the majority of his first two seasons there on the fringes of the first-team squad while playing for the Under-21s. He still made a number of appearances in the senior team, however, including as a substitute in the 2017 Europa League final Ajax lost to Manchester United.

The following season was De Jong’s breakthrough year, and it actually started in the centre of defence after the departure of Davinson Sanchez to Tottenham. With another potential star in Matthijs de Ligt playing alongside him, Ajax boasted one of the youngest, but most exciting, central-defensive pairings in Europe. De Jong’s distribution, even from deep in his own half, marked him out as an exceptional talent.

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After working his way through the international age groups with the Netherlands, the 22-year-old capped off a stellar year with his first appearance in the senior side – from the bench in a 2-1 friendly victory over Peru. Since then De Jong has added further caps, including important Nations League fixtures against the two most recent World Cup winners, France and Germany (above).

De Jong was playing for an Ajax team that dominated the ball in almost all of their games – for such a talented passer, it was a comfortable environment in which to grow as a young professional. As he matures, the real test will come with his move to a new league and arguably Europe’s biggest club in Barcelona. With add-ons, his move to the Camp Nou could in time mean he surpasses Virgil van Dijk as the most expensive Dutch signing in history.

Tactical analysis
If you want a summary of Frenkie de Jong’s abilities, watch his dribble forward in the 55th minute of Ajax’s 3-0 home victory over PSV in December 2017 (above). He began by receiving a pass on the edge of his own penalty area, and then proceeded right down the central channel. Most central defenders will split and then step into midfield within the inside lanes – but not De Jong. In complete control throughout, he surged deep into PSV’s half before sliding a superb through ball in behind for David Neres. Ajax didn’t score from this particular move, but it encapsulated perfectly what he can offer in possession.

When Ajax brought Daley Blind back to the Johan Cruyff Arena from Manchester United, De Jong was moved higher into midfield, usually as part of a double pivot. Often paired with the vastly more experienced Lasse Schone, De Jong had a licence to attack from a deeper position, where he can still maintain his penetrative dribbling. He has had varied roles to date, and looks more a player to assist the assist. There is also plenty of time for Barca to develop his final-third contributions.

De Jong’s performances this season have carried echoes of Luka Modric in a deeper role, not to mention a hint of the disguised passing typical of future teammate Sergio Busquets. His ability to break both the midfield and defensive line often meant Ajax progressing the ball into the final third (above). The timing of his release is another asset; he can draw defenders before then reversing the ball back through the gap they have just left.

Defensively, he is improving. As a midfielder, he initially struggled when making recovery runs – his desire to have the ball at his feet isn’t always matched by his hunger for winning it back, although he has been known to dive in during moments of transition. His preference to slide in on the ground can also be a problem, especially when faced with nimble and pacy opponents who can exploit this. If he can change his technique to pinch the ball from opponents rather than wiping them out altogether, he is only going to get even better.

Role at new club
Like most of the Dutch greats, De Jong looks destined to fulfil his potential away from the Netherlands. Much like icons such as Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens and Frank de Boer before him, the move from Ajax to Barca looks a perfect fit.

The reigning Spanish champions have central midfielders Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and Arturo Vidal all the wrong side of 30. Recent recruits Philippe Coutinho and Arthur represent the younger generation, but the former is struggling to find his best form since his big-money move from Liverpool. With this in mind, De Jong – an excellent ball-carrier who can move possession quickly and accurately – might find himself quickly pressing for a starting role.

De Jong’s desire to get on the ball enables him to quickly press opponents, particularly if he is supported by teammates within a close proximity – a tactic Barca traditionally employ to great effect. However, their preferred method of press is to pinch the ball as it travels between opponents, rather than dispossessing players with the ball at their feet. De Jong won’t have to dig too deep in the Camp Nou archives to find evidence of this – smaller players such as Xavi, Andres Iniesta and, of course, Lionel Messi have long been masters of the art.

Even in his short career to date, De Jong has given evidence of his adaptability and versatility. For Ajax last season he played mostly on the left side of a double pivot in a 4-2-3-1 – but he has also featured as a single central pivot, from the right with a two-man screen and in central defence. As the graphics above suggest, he can fill a number of roles in Barcelona’s usual 4-3-3 formation, whether alongside or even as cover for the great Busquets. One thing is regardless for certain – Barca have acquired themselves an incredibly talented young footballer who has the potential to be almost anything.

Frenkie de Jong

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