Frenkie de Jong is the ‘boss’ of reborn Barcelona
editor of NOS Sports
editor of NOS Sports
Frenkie de Jong only had to say yes last summer and he would have been a Manchester United player. He said no. Even though Barcelona showed him the exit and despite a vague prospect in Catalonia, he held firm.
And now? The 25-year-old midfielder comes to Manchester next week (normally), but as a Barcelona player. As a key player even. It’s Thursday night Barça against United in the Europa League and next week’s return at Old Trafford.
When De Jong transferred to Barcelona in 2019, he had had a wonderful year with Ajax. From a more withdrawn position on the left of midfield, De Jong was able to draw the game to himself and deploy his renowned rushes.
Club icon and mega-talents
What De Jong also knew then was that that position did not exist in Barcelona’s system. In Spain, De Jong had to stand “higher,” closer to the opponent’s goal, than he liked. The best position for De Jong at Barça was that of central controller.
Problem: that position had been in the hands of club icon Sergio Busquets for years. Even Ernesto Valverde, Quique Setién, Ronald Koeman and Xavi, as successive coaches, saw no reason to replace Busquets in that spot with the Dutchman already.
That meant finding another spot for De Jong, usually a little further forward than he was used to at Ajax. Added to that was the breakthrough of first Pedri and later Gavi, two mega-talented midfielders, the latter of whom was also from his own youth.
With Pedri and Gavi and Busquets still at least a year on board, Barça didn’t really need De Jong anymore. At least that’s the conclusion drawn by the club’s management in decline. Selling De Jong would address some of the financial concerns.
From the beginning of this season, De Jong no longer had to count on a starting place. And if the Oranje international was allowed to start, he was quickly substituted again. Against Pedri, Busquets and Gavi, De Jong failed, according to coach Xavi.
In the home game with Bayern Munich in the Champions League in October (0-3 loss), Xavi opted for the first time for a variant of his 4-3-3 system. Pedri started that game as a suspended left winger, as a kind of fourth midfielder. Against Atlético Madrid in January (0-1 win), he repeated this with Gavi in that role.
“We feel comfortable in any system,” Xavi explained. “We’ve also played great games with two wingers. Actually, we never change much. Maybe with Frenkie and Busquets together, so with four midfielders, we lose fewer balls.”
For De Jong, it meant he could play much more in the way that made him flourish at Ajax in the 2018/2019 season. With next to him in the heart of midfield not Lasse Schöne, but Busquets.
“We have found the perfect position for Frenkie,” Xavi said after the 3-0 win over Sevilla. “I see he is happy.” De Jong himself: “We always have a preponderance in midfield now and that makes things easier for me. I feel comfortable like this.”
With eight consecutive victories already, Xavi seems to have found his formula for success. However, Busquets’ injured breakdown against Sevilla forced the coach to make other choices again.
Last weekend against Villarreal (1-0 win), Franck Kessié was given a place in midfield and De Jong took over Busquets’ position. Xavi stuck to his system of four midfielders, with Gavi in an attacking role on the left.
‘Frenkie gave a master class’
This did not change anything about De Jong’s form. That remained unabatedly good. “We see the best Frenkie since I started coaching at Barcelona,” Xavi said. “He is doing great offensively and defensively. He has a lot of confidence, I’m happy for him.”
“Imperial,” Spanish sports newspaper Diario Sport called De Jong’s game against Villarreal. Other media also praised the Dutch international’s performance. He was named “El Jefe,” the boss of the team, in Busquets’ absence.
El Mundo Deportivo: “Frenkie gave a master class in vertical soccer and skill in passing and in soccer intelligence.” Marca: “Frenkie took the reins of the team.” AS: “It was a demonstration by the Dutchman.”
A showdown awaits Thursday with his old coach Erik ten Hag, the man who was so eager to bring him to United. “He is an incredibly good player and would be an asset to any club in the world,” United’s coach spoke at a press conference at Camp Nou on Wednesday.
Ten Hag must be patient. De Jong will decide his own future. With a contract until the summer of 2026 and the status of “Jefe,” he is well placed at Barcelona.
Moreover, the mood around De Jong has completely changed. Even Xavi is convinced. With De Jong, Barça is stepping into a new era. The Spanish Super Cup is already in, the lead in La Liga is firmly in hand and the Spanish Cup and the Europa League still within reach.