Frenkie De Jong is entering his fourth season at FC Barcelona, and it seems rather odd that he still doesn’t have a place, hasn’t carped him some diem, hasn’t made a clear argument for his being in the XI.
When he was (allegedly) on the block over the summer transfer window, it was quite clear that he had no intention of leaving, even as it’s fair to wonder whether other destinations might have suited him better.
At his arrival, ages ago it feels like, De Jong was everything anyone wanted: a vibrant, dynamic midfielder, a Dutch footballer from Ajax. All he would need is some distant relation to the late Johan Cruijff to be perfect. He was just coming off a fantastic season, leading Ajax as they performed the improbable in Champions League. De Jong probed and drove, ran and pushed his teammates along in a dynamic style that wasn’t quite run-and-gun, but close.
He came to Barcelona as another of the club’s expensive signings that would be perfect if they weren’t at Barcelona, but only a few churls were obnoxious enough to note that. It isn’t that De Jong isn’t a brilliant footballer. But is it fair to ask whether maybe, just maybe, he’s likely to be a truly brilliant, fully realized footballer somewhere else. At Barça he is still, entering his fourth season, working to define a tactical role that suits him and puts him front and center with his new (and most recent) manager.
What does a mid do who likes to hold the ball, likes to pick passes or make runs, going to do at a club that likes possession, likes to build it gradually, that consistently faces opponents that not only don’t allow mids to make runs but who press those mids so that any dwelling on possession is as likely to result in a dispossession as a glorious pass.
Right now, Barça is slaved to a midfield genius in Sergio Busquets, a player for whom there is no analog. There was hope that De Jong might grow into that role but as we saw in his last outing, those hopes are now foundering on the rocks. He doesn’t have an eye for the pass in that same way (who does, really?), doesn’t dictate tempo unless he’s running with the ball. He’s also slow, and slow to react defensively which makes him, though a much younger player, even more of a turnstile than Busquets.
Against Viktoria Plzen, a romp that raised as many questions as it purported to answer, one of the bigger questions is what do with De Jong? How do you get the most from a fantastic young player in a world that doesn’t seem to suit him? In a double pivot with Kessie, neither of them seemed particularly comfortable. Kessie wanted to get forward, De Jong wanted to do De Jong stuff. The net result was acres of playing space that will have opposition managers weeping and rending their garments at not facing that midfield duo.
Lewandowski ended up being as effective an attacking midfielder as any of the mids, a complexity that will furrow Xavi’s brow as he watches the video from the match.
And De Jong will likely end up playing some other role his next outing.
Ousmane Dembele was bought, then everyone seemed to realize that the role he was best suited for wasn’t possible at Barça. Because Messi, because system, because everything.
Antoine Griezmann was bought, then …
Phillippe Coutinho was bought, then …
Frenkie De Jong was bought, then …
But De Jong was supposed to be different, yet how could he be when plopped in a team not all that inclined to change? He was one of the team’s best players last season, but that was grading on a curve. Even then, he wasn’t occupying a role that was clearly defined, a role that it’s also fair to wonder about the very existence of at FC Barcelona.
Pedri came in and seized a spot. Gavi came in and has become that third midfielder for Xavi, a role that a player for whom the club paid some 85m was already supposed to have locked down. Who assumed that, entering his fourth season at FC Barcelona, we would still be wondering what the best role was for Frenkie De Jong?
He needs space that he rarely gets, needs a tempo that isn’t allowed by packed boxes, low blocks and pressing, physical opponent midfields. He needs a lot of things, none of which have happened to a degree sufficient to allow to realize his immense promise. He’s 25 years old, and has been sat (yes, he has … don’t even try that) by a couple of wee geniuses barely old enough to shave.
As Gavi ran himself into cramp, dominating all phases of play against Sevilla, it was clear why he shoved his pugnacious way into Xavi’s graces. He’s almost everything that De Jong isn’t. More crucially, the way he plays works against the way opponents like to attack Barça. He’s smart in possession, doesn’t hold the ball for a second longer. He isn’t interested in creating, unless it’s a fight, understanding that the best thing for XaviBall is for the ball to continue its rapid-fire circulation. He is a terror on defense, reads play well. It’s no wonder he’s in that third spot.
And if those three are Busquets, Gavi and Pedri, where does that leave De Jong? And to be very clear, he is an amazing footballer. His work at Ajax was such a joy to watch, making the speculation that he might be tempted into a Ten Hag reunion seem not all that far-fetched.
As became clear later, he had no intention of even thinking about leaving FC Barcelona. That kind of loyalty is admirable. But at what point is it fair to ask what next, how will Xavi try to make De Jong work and is that idealized role ever going to happen at Barça?