The symmetry is odd.
This very weekend, the one where many culers will be winding themselves into knots over the Frenkie De Jong sale rumors, my suburb is having its annual Trash Day.
No, De Jong isn’t trash, but this weekend makes you consider the possessions that you have and their usefulness to you. If they aren’t useful or have outlived their usefulness, to the curb it goes, where someone (people drive through our area on Trash Day, scouring the piles) might find it useful.
As minimalists, we’re constantly reassessing our lives and the possessions therein. If we haven’t touched something in a few months, there’s usually a reason. Out it goes.
Football clubs go through the same process, reassessing possessions. Like my wife and I, all they think is, “Does this have value?” Once a determination is made they loan, sell or rescind as is necessary and often, people flip out.
My view of players is like my view of stuff — it’s here, then it’s not. And that’s that. Never been a fan of any player, because well — they’re here, then they’re not. The idea of a particular player being iconic, and titans such as Puyol or Cruijff are, is different than being a fan of them, for me.
When Guardiola took over at Barça, he served notice. Ronaldinho, Deco were out. He tried with Eto’o as well, but that was a thing on the discard pile that turned out to be quite useful. That happens sometimes as well in the quest for an unfettered life. Some people stopped supporting the club because of the Ronaldinho sale. As fans of the player, they couldn’t countenance how the club could move him on, even if as fans of the player it must also have hurt to see the husk of a player the Brazilian had become.
What made that transfer particularly seismic is that Ronaldinho, like Cruijff, was crucial to the development of the club in that he was the kind of player who attracted global attention, expanded the fanbase. At exhibitions, it seemed that everybody was wearing a Ronaldinho shirt. His highlights made American sports shows. He was amazing. And then he was gone.
It’s interesting that the next iconic player to be unceremoniously moved on happened under the same president, Joan Laporta, who must feel about players like my wife and I feel about stuff. Messi came to the Camp Nou to sign his new contract and left a soon-to-be player for Paris. St. Germain. And people stopped supporting the club as a consequence, which brings us to Frenkie De Jong.
There are sale rumors, and people are freaking out, with many a Tweet purporting conditional love, based on the continued tenure of the Dutchman. But De Jong is just a player. Not an icon, not a titan. It isn’t like Messi or Ronaldinho moving on. This is just a midfielder who in three years hasn’t become anything like what he promised. And he doesn’t have the excuse of being on the treatment table, like Dembele or Fati. He’s played, and played the vast majority of the matches. And still, people are having discussions about how best to use him, what to do with him.
So is the club, it would seem.
In perusing a roster filled with kids, has-beens, never-will-bes and freebies, a club that needs money to do business has to make hard decisions. And once you’ve cut Messi loose, it’s already been determined that you have, in effect, a block of ice that pumps blood. And like a junkie looking for stuff to hock, you look at the current roster and what is available.
The highest-value player, Ousmane Dembele, has been squandered in a blizzard of bad decisions and animus. His value to the club is zero, or will be as of the opening of the summer transfer window. Ferran Torres just arrived. Depay moving might buy a bauble. De Jong is it. The only player the club could countenance selling to get some money. Nico Gonzalez, Pedri, Gavi, Fati are all untouchable. And with Franck Kessie coming over from AC Milan on a free, and Busquets seeming ageless even if that’s a lie, De Jong becomes the odd man out. He isn’t essential tactically, and doesn’t really do anything to the extent that you think, “Man, where would we be if … “
The biggest problem, in full honesty, with the sale of Frenkie De Jong is philosophical. He is a tall, blond, Dutch midfielder from Ajax, the club of Cruijff, who would surely have approved of his transfer. Maybe. The notion of him as a “Barça midfielder” had people woozy as he seemed to have all the skills. That is a concept that can be hard to let go of. “Today, the manager will find that exact right use for him.” And smart people write about how that has yet to happen, and how this particular way is The Way. And another match happens in which De Jong plays well. Well enough to spark hope, yet not well enough to make you think, “Man, where would we be if … “
It’s been three years. Three years. There are probably statistics that point out that De Jong has in fact been amazing, that your eyes are fooling you. Dermot Corrigan has an excellent piece at The Athletic, which many might remember as the outlet that also published a piece by some jackass a few years ago, suggesting that perhaps De Jong wasn’t the best path.
One of the most telling lines from the Corrigan piece is: De Jong more often drifts through games, looking unsure of what exactly he should be doing.
At a past presser, Xavi issued one of those “But … ” statements of which managers are fond: “I am happy with him, and he has to continue. He has to score goals, assist, and be the protagonist in games.”
He hasn’t in three years. In a conversation on Twitter, my assertion was that he isn’t decisive. Hasn’t been and likely won’t be. Not in this Barcelona system. He excelled at Ajax in a system that isn’t the Barça system. It was more mobile, more dynamic, faster. De Jong is stuck in the ooze, tactically, physically and philosophically. The team could make him work with movement. Give him a couple of dynamic wingers and a fast-moving 9 and run. But then what do you with Busquets? And what of opponents who sit in a low block because Barça isn’t Ajax?
If your club needs money, sellable assets force difficult decisions, but should the decision really be all that difficult? In three years with the club, after being acquired for almost 90m, he’s still a cipher. Dembele, who cost a king’s ransom, is finally fit and has a manager using him in a way that works for him. And he’s raising all kinds of hell. Sucks for Barça as he’s leaving on a free. But there you go. Personally I would renew him at his current wages so at least you can at some point get something for him. But I’m not the Barça brain trust, so what do I know.
And we’re back to De Jong, fandom and expendability. The idea of a talented player … a young, talented player, being surplus to requirements isn’t new. The idea of supporters being such fans of that player that their allegiance to a club comes into question if the decision is taken to move that player on isn’t new, nor is the idea that the game is a business, a cold, often cruel business.
It’s hard not to become a fan of a player, that vicarious thrill that comes from the magic feet of our beloved, right? Football is emotion, and what sporting emotion is purer than fandom? Love isn’t about logic, is it? When you bought that thing, it was something that sparked it. Need, want, something. And now, you shuffle it to the curb on Trash Day. Letting go is a part of life, and a part of supporting a club. Players come, and players go. It’s the circle of life.