The only people not surprised by how FC Barcelona is managing the Frenkie De Jong situation are people not familiar with the club and how it operates.
Board after board is the same way when it comes to money and how the club treats players that it wants to leave, even as the situations vary.
If a negotiation is difficult, up come the stories in compliant media outlets about how greedy the player is, and similar players being considered in transfer rumors.
If a player doesn’t want to leave, up come stories in compliant media outlets about how the player doesn’t want to leave, is harming the club and keeping it from moving on, etc etc.
And then there is the very special case of Ousmane Dembele, where Xavi finally had to step in, like the grandparent tired of the kids fighting.
Nothing about the De Jong situation is surprising, though it’s worth adding as a grumpy side note that if he was as persistent about how he played as he seems to be about this process, he likely wouldn’t be on the block at all.
To be clear, De Jong is expendable, even more so than when the rumors first cropped up about his potential departure. The Golden Child who arrived to the manor born has yet to distinguish himself in a way that demands his presence be preserved. There are people who like him and his game, and come up with reasons for why he isn’t working out perfectly. Meanwhile, Pedri rolls in playing like he was raised in La Masia. Gavi moves up and instantly slots in. In the recent friendly (yes, very early days) Kessie and Torre looked like veterans assimilated already, instead of newcomers.
De Jong is expendable because he is still, mostly, a cipher. He arrived for 85m and amid many huzzahs, even as a few of us (well, maybe just one) doubted all of it. His system at Ajax was so different, not only tactically but in terms of talent. Barça made the same error it has made time and again with De Jong in acquiring a talent that works in one system, then making it play in a system less well suited rather than adapting to the skill set of the talent.
Pedri worked because his game fits that system. Same with Torre. De Jong needs to be able to drive the attack with ball at his feet. Place him in the static Barça system and he’s a player out of place, slow afoot, slack on defense and lacking that particular skill set that the Barça system needs.
He is also an immensely talented midfielder, which is the reason people are still saying that if only this or that happens, De Jong will be amazing — when they aren’t insisting he was already amazing.
De Jong is also expendable because of fiscal expediency. He’s a big salary due to get even bigger, and a big transfer fee for a club looking to raise money while it’s pulling levers. You get that salary off the books, and some more play money to fling around.
De Jong is at the moment, due one of those deferred salary payments that Bartomeu doled out like candy as a way to try to magic with accounting his way out of a fiscal mess. And De Jong is absolutely right to say, “Pay me what you owe me.” A contract is a contract.
As with Dembele in January, rumors and stories fly hither and yon about the club telling De Jong to leave, wanting him to forego his balloon payment, etc. As with Dembele in January, all the club had to to do bring truth to rumor is say, “None of this is happening.” Instead the rumors persist.
On the other side, there are rumors that De Jong and his agent are angry at how the player is being treated. And they can be angry, but they certainly shouldn’t be surprised. Contract negotiations are often hotly contested and ugly as sin. And as with Dembele, who watched the club tell him he needed to take a pay cut even as it signed Ferran Torres, De Jong has to be thinking, “Why am I giving up money for a club that is making it rain?”
Yes, salaries are different than transfer fees, and both sides know that. But optics matter. Barça is mishandling this, to the surprise of no one familiar with how the club operates. Ideally, a club sits down with a player, explains the situation and tries to work out an arrangement before any other club is spoken to. That isn’t how things seem to have worked out, and it’s unfortunate but not surprising.
Nor is it surprising that many of the same people who were on the club’s side during the Dembele contract row are on De Jong’s side during this row. Yet both cases are players trying to extract the maximum bag from a club that wants to hand over the minimum bag. It’s business. Teammates are likely sympa because there, but for the grace of the Football Gods, go they. And they know the club’s history as well.
Because human relations is a thing, managing the people who work for your company. And a football club has a public face. Barça’s is as ugly now as it was in January and now as then, there is no interest in applying any stage paint. And as in January, the player is silent, saying only that Barça is his “dream club,” and he only wants to stay. Ignore all the stuff about having just bought a house in Barcelona, etc, etc. Look at the complex Messi has in Barcelona and how quickly he flitted off to Paris.
All that said, De Jong should leave. The club should perform triage, pay him his money or negotiate a favorable settlement and let him leave. He’s a smart young man and so is his agent. They both know that his value will never be higher on the world stage. After another cipher of a season at Barça in which he isn’t going to be in the XI in ink as he was last year, will any suitor be as interested as Manchester United is right now? He has on offer a manager that wants to build a midfield around him, with one of the most legendary clubs in world football. (Yes, it is … stop that.) And it’s in the Premiership, a league that puts its talent on the biggest global stages and knows how to market itself. Everything about this proposed deal makes sense for De Jong, even the competitive environment at Barça.
Pablo Torre is going to spend about as much time with the B team as any of us will. And Kessie plays the exact type of game that will benefit Xavi’s system, a player who might not be as ultimately talented as De Jong but whose capabilities potentially make him more effective. And if Xavi wants Nico Gonzalez as the heir apparent to Busquets, a role for which De Jong seems particularly ill-suited, what then? And we haven’t even touched on Pedri and Gavi, the latter of that tandem as ready for more time as he is to get into it with an opponent.
The writing is on the wall for Frenkie De Jong at FC Barcelona, and it’s ridiculous that the club is making it difficult to impossible for the player to relent, because optics. Especially since now is as good a time as any for a graceful exit and pillow-soft landing into a better situation. That the club has made it so difficult for that exit is on brand, another human relations failure in an organization with a history of them.