Frenkie de Jong
If many of the Netherlands' finest modern-day players had often joined Barcelona – Johan Cruyff was followed by Ronald Koeman, Patrick Kluivert, Philip Cocu and more, in the same way that Cruyff, Louis van Gaal and Frank Rijkaard also became coach – far fewer had done so since Rijkaard's departure from the Camp Nou in 2008. It was at that point, under Pep Guardiola, that La Masia's finest in Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Andres Iniesta became even more crucial to their success, forming the world's finest midfield at a time when Barca's was the world's finest club side, and Spain won both European Championships and the World Cup.
Of that decorated group, Busquets alone remains, and Barca are significantly less dominant. The talented Philippe Coutinho is one who was recruited to help form a new midfield, and proved unable to do so. But it was when Coutinho was loaned to Bayern Munich that Frenkie de Jong arrived from Ajax for a fee of £65m, that could yet rise by a further £9.5m, amid interest from Juventus, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, again giving Barca perhaps the most sought-after midfielder in the world. De Jong can also play in defence but, perhaps more crucially, particularly after the recent appointment of Cruyff disciple Quique Setién as succecessor as manager to Ernesto Valverde, his presence gives them hope of reviving the remarkable philosophy that made them as stylish as they were successful.
De Jong’s technical and tactical maturity for so young an individual makes him a potentially key asset to any midfield at even the highest level – particularly one determined to dominate possession and to overcome a defensive block. The depth of his technical qualities allow him to protect, maintain and advance possession, and he is just as convincing playing off of one touch as he is off of five or six. De Jong's abilities invite him to be involved in all three thirds of the pitch – the build-up phases when playing out from the back, the creative phase in the midfield third, and the finishing phase in the final third.
If a summary of those abilities were needed it came while he remained at Ajax, and against rivals PSV Eindhoven, in December 2017. He began by receiving a pass on the edge of Ajax's penalty area, proceeded into the central channel and, instead of taking a more cautious option, surged deep into PSV’s half before sliding a superb through ball in behind for David Neres. When they signed Daley Blind, De Jong was moved higher into midfield, usually as part of a double pivot, and given the freedom to attack from a deeper position where he could continue to use his penetrative dribbling.
De Jong’s performances have often echoed Luka Modric's, from a deeper role, and offer a hint of the disguised passing typical of Barca teammate Busquets. His ability to break both the midfield and defensive lines (below) often mean his teams advancing the ball into the final third. The timing of his release is a further asset; he can draw opponents before reversing the ball back through the gap that has just been vacated.
He is improving defensively. As a midfielder he initially struggled when attempting recovery runs – his desire to have possession at his feet isn’t always matched by his desire to win it back – and he has been known to be rash during moments of transition, potentially a concern against fast and nimble opponents. If he can learn to consistently pinch possession from those opponents he will continue to improve.
Role at Barcelona
De Jong has been a consistent figure for Barca since his arrival from Ajax, and since when he has most commonly featured as one of three central midfielders. He has been used on both the right and left of a midfield three, and encouraged to play a more simplified game since leaving Amsterdam. When Barca attempt to build from defence, De Jong offers movements intended to test his direct opponent – often through withdrawing towards possession and essentially either inviting a wide attacker to move into the space created, or so that he can receive, turn, and advance between the lines.
It is those patterns that lead to so many of Barca's attacks. The relationship between De Jong and the relevant full-back and wide attacker is particularly influential in their attempts to advance beyond their opponents, and often involve three-on-two overloads (below) against the defending full-back and central midfielder. When De Jong receives and turns, he prioritises driving at his opponent to commit him to and engage him in a one-on-one before playing possession to either the full-back or wide attacker, as is consistent with Setién’s philosophy.
An increasingly exciting aspect of De Jong’s approach has become his awareness of when to execute penetrative runs. In Barcelona his positional awareness has improved, and involved him recognising when to advance and when to remain disciplined and to hold his position.
He attempts penetrative runs beyond a defence if the relevant wide attacker or central attacker has withdrawn towards possession, encouraging him to gather momentum, remain onside, and build an advantage on the defender forced to turn and run while also judging the flight of the ball. An alternative option involves him holding his position behind the ball to operate both as an outlet and as a forward-facing, creative midfielder; numerous assists have come from penetrative passes from those deeper positions, passes he weighs impressively when threading them in behind an opposing defence.