Ever since the young and rising star, Frenkie de Jong, joined Ajax from his former club Willem II back in 2015, he procured serendipitous sight to the spectators at the newly-named Johan Cruijff Arena, and although the Dutch league, Eredivisie, is not a very popular one, he still managed to arouse whispers from the footballing community and attract a ludicrous amount of attention from big clubs such as Manchester City and FC Barcelona. Hence, the crucial yet evident question that strikes any football fan is, how did a young Dutch boy, unbeknownst to the world just as yet, go from being an unknown and frivolous prospect to being compared to the likes of Sergio Busquets, Iniesta and Xavi, as well as be labelled as the saviour of Dutch football?
Frenkie’s story began back in 2015. The aforementioned transfer took place on August 23rd, 2015, when a promising and gifted 18-year-old Dutchman, Frenkie de Jong, was sent from his boyhood club, Willem II, after a short but impressive spell, to the Dutch footballing giants in Ajax Amsterdam. Needless to say, Ajax’s scouts were keen on signing him and were already noticing his grandiose potential and tremendous abilities on the field. It is rare for a club like Ajax to go out in search for and sign a youngster, mainly due to the fact that they are a club with such an advanced and well-structured youth development program in place which gives them the unique possibility of picking players from their own ranks, and also because Ajax have always been a club who pride themselves on promoting and producing their own stars, notably players like Patrick Kluivert, Frank Rijkaard, Wesley Sneijder or, the one and only, Johan Cruijff. Thus, it only showed how the highly-rated Frenkie de Jong was a young player destined to have a promising and great future as a football player, although back then, only time could tell whether Frenkie would actually burgeon into a unique player or if he would be midfielder like any other.
After a brief loan spell in the 2015-16 season where he saw himself being loaned out to his former club Willem II, Frenkie came back with AFC Ajax in the 2016-2017 season and started getting notable playing time. Ajax had multiple midfield options with players like Ziyech, Davie Klaassen and Lasse Schöne, the ultimate and essential midfield trio, making it harder for de Jong to slot in as a regular starter that season. Not only that, but Ajax were and still are going through a rebuilding phase, as after Frank de Boer’s departure as head coach in 2016, after 6 successful seasons, Ajax had 3 coaches in a matter of 2 years and fired almost half their board in 2017. Hence, for young Frenkie de Jong who had just arrived, adaptation seemed like a hard task to accomplish. Under Peter Bosz, who took the reins as their manager for a season before waving good-bye to Amsterdam after a poor stint, Frenkie de Jong was mainly playing as a backup defensive midfielder in a 4-3-3 formation. Thus, he took advantage of every occasion given to him and almost never failed to prove the coach wrong in his decision of playing him.
The amazing versatility he had (and still has) did not go unnoticed by Peter Bosz, who later went on to claim that he saw Frenkie as a #6 (which, back in 2015-16 and the following season was an important role displayed on field by Schöne) but also as a #8 and even a #10, the famous playmaker/false #9 position which us Barcelona fans hope Leo Messi will play at in the coming years for Barça. After all, it was Frenkie’s natural position, since during his time at Willem, he almost always played as a box-to-box midfielder or a playmaking maestro. In the Europa League Final, at the end of the 2016-17 season, Ajax saw themselves facing a tough and defensive opponent, Manchester United, where Frenkie played 10-minutes-or-so in what was a crucial game to say the least, but it was enough to show the world his marvelous talent. During the game, Ajax had failed to pass through and break enemy lines along with moving the ball into a deeper-lying player, Bertrand Traoré. Frenkie was hemmed in tight quarters next to the Ajax defensive third, only to drive the ball out, play a one-two with Matthijs de Ligt so as to be able to move into available space freely and outperform Fellaini, and finally play the ball to Traoré who had a few occasions on getting on the scoresheet and giving Ajax sheer hope for the trophy. At only 20 years of age, De Jong possesses the innate capacity to know when to play the ball to beat pressure or when to create a convoluted passing array to move the ball forward, even against big teams like Manchester.
As previously mentioned, Peter Bosz did not have a satisfactory season with Ajax, especially with the disappointing 2nd place in the Europa League, and had a short spell as a manager with them. Thereupon, Marcel Keizer was appointed as the new manager of the team. However, Ajax’s 2017 summer was not their best one as they lost 2 crucial pieces in Bosz’s formation: Davinson Sanchez (now Tottenham Hotspurs) and Davy Klaassen (now Everton). Consequently, Ajax had two big holes to fill and two young and bright prospects, Frenkie de Jong and Donnie Van de Beek, seemed like the ideal pair to replace them. Frenkie had the fascinating ability to play anywhere on the field and Keizer leapt at the opportunity, turning Frenkie into a sweeper which revived the long-forgotten libero role, eminently displayed by Franco Baresi and Velibor Vasovic and now notably by de Jong, allowing the player to roam freely around the field, creating chances and build up plays but also supporting the defence. Although Mark Keizer is a coach who favours immensely individual performances rather than actual team ethic, he started his campaign by playing Frenkie as a number 8. The lack of defensive strength in Ajax’s team forced him to switch Frenkie into a deeper-lying defensive role. Particularly under Keizer but also under current Ajax manager Erik ten Haag, Frenkie was preferred in the centre-back/defensive midfielder role, mainly because since Davinson Sanchez’ departure, De Ligt was the only actual first-choice, resourceful and top-notch centre-back.
Moreover, Frenkie De Jong, during the second half of the 2017-18 season, with Erik ten Haag trusting the youngster, and also the Netherlands national team, played as a deep-lying playmaker having more positional awareness because of the fullbacks moving up forward. De Jong was consequently dropping in between the defensive two-chain, the cleverness of the 20-year-old Dutchman was entirely displayed. In a qualifying game for the Netherlands U21 national team against Andorra, he drove the ball into space as the opponent sat off him with a deeper-lying block of constant pressure. The Ajax player also consistently did well to create passing angles for his defenders (Van Drongelen and Rosario), when they were further up the field. He was also effective in winning the ball higher up the pitch as he did for the first goal when he won the ball on the edge of the box and played a glorious, defence-breaking pass to Idrissi which then turned into a tap-in goal. The young Dutch prospect was then giving his viewers a mere glance at what he was capable of doing, and for fellow Dutch fans, he revived hope as he was slowly becoming the “saviour” of Dutch football.
With Frenkie’s background story told, it is interesting to know why top clubs, particularly FC Barcelona, sparkle immense interest in a player like de Jong. Barça, as of today, have lost 2 crucial pieces of their trophy-bringing puzzle: Iniesta and Xavi. While with Arthur’s arrival and with the likes of Alenyá and Oriol also making it to the team, the midfield seems to be slightly more promising, but with Sergio having just reached his 30th year anniversary, Barcelona are in search for another midfielder and Frenkie de Jong might just be the solution, although Ajax’s technical director insists that the 21-year-old is not for sale.
While Arthur illustrated with Grêmio what looks to be the closest a player has been to Xavi, with Xavi-esque ball control and playmaking, Frenkie is a player who is so versatile that he combines Iniesta’s, Xavi’s and Busquets’ playing styles all in one, making him the ideal prospect to be signed:
– His tremendous ability to create space: Frenkie is a very progressive player and he moves up the midfield and forwards with him, all while creating stupendous Xavi-like passing lanes for his teammates, who just have to convert the chance into a goal, like we have seen against teams like Manchester United or national teams. Sometimes while watching him, you would think he inherited this ability, just by the way he so easily manages to conduct a game. Furthermore, Frenkie has managed to keep an average passing accuracy of 92%, having matches where he surpassed 100 completed passes, yet another exclusive skill which helps de Jong find passing lanes and build-up plays.
– His unique way of progressive play: the best footballers in the world paint pictures of what’s happening around them by taking faint looks over their shoulder before the ball even reaches their feet. Those who do it naturally are always one step ahead of the game. De Jong is no different. When he plays, he always looks like he’s one step ahead of his opponent, just like in a chess game. The opponent eagerly takes away his bishop whilst he has already planned a checkmate. His progressive plays almost always allowed his teammates to create sublime chances, eventually putting the ball in the back of the net.
– His on-field intelligence: Players facing de Jong are not fools, they know just like you that he is a threat, hence he is pressured every single game. Yet, when his teammates are in danger of losing the ball, de Jong always finds an effortless and successful way to drift away from his markers and create passing opportunities for teammates. Numerous times in the Eredivisie did he come up forward, even though he is a centre-back/deep-lying midfielder, and managed to create chances starting from scratch. Ajax’ number 21 has a distinctive vision and his ability to bamboozle his opponents with his skillset has never failed to show whenever he played.
These reasons, amongst others, are why Frenkie de Jong, under the right manager, could become the closest player to Xavi, Iniesta and Sergio all-in-one. Pep Guardiola seems like the ideal manager for him, especially when you come to think that Guardiola used to perfectionate the positional change tactic, which would be the ideal in-game tactic to adapt for Frenkie. Should he come to Barcelona, (next summer, most likely) he would have to play in a particular formation and hopefully, under a coach other than Valverde. In fact, Ernesto Valverde is a coach who never takes risks while playing and is using an unusual team formation: the 4-4-2, with Messi being a false 9. As for Frenkie, he has played, under all of the managers who directed him, in a 4-3-3 or 3-4-3 formation. Particularly in the 3-4-3 system, Frenkie mostly played as a centre-back/sweeper player, with De Ligt being the only natural centre-back. If he were to come at Barcelona, the gaffer would need to re-adapt his team into a 4-3-3 formation, where Frenkie would ideally play in Sergio’s current position, with Arthur and Alenyá occupying the two centre-midfielder spots. Hence, adapting a player who has almost always played in a constant formation would be dangerous, and ideally, it would be preferable to change the 4-4-2 into a 4-3-3. The unmatched midfield strength Barça could then have would be truly a one-of-a-kind, reminiscent of the good old Xavi-Iniesta-Busquets days. Frenkie’s ability to create play and still be able to help out the defence are attributes that all major clubs are seeking in a player, especially a talented one like Frenkie, who looks like he was born with this style of play.
All in all, Frenkie de Jong, with such an awe-inspiring passing accuracy, pinpoint long passes, ability to dribble beautifully and create magnificent play, that too at the young age of 21, is ideally carved out for a team like Barcelona who are recognised for keeping possession and building up plays, and would bring back the joy of Barça’s football to the fans back.
To conclude, Frenkie’s tremendous abilities have helped him become the player he is, be it for the club or his national team, who have been struggling for almost a decade into finding their footballing strengths again. Although he is already 21 years of age, it does not take away the fact that he is one of the current hottest prospects. He does not score a lot of goals and sometimes manages to assist, but us Barça fans know perfectly well that football is much more than just scoring goals, and that watching a perfect positional build-up ending in a beautiful chance is much more satisfying. Although he is not likely going anywhere this season, Barça should go all-in for him as of next summer, especially if he continues to grow like he currently is. Frenkie not only looks like a great football player, but also like a one-of-a-kind person, and hopefully Barça will do the right thing be it this year or the next year, as prospects like de Jong come once in ten years or sometimes even more. Personally, by simply glancing at how Pep Segura and Bartomeu manage the team’s signings, currently preferring to go for Willian instead of Thiago, I wouldn’t be surprised if de Jong, although a Barça fan, signs elsewhere come next season.