Why Frenkie de Jong could become a Barcelona phenomenon

Frenkie de Jong Ajax Barcelona
The highly-coveted midfielder will make his dream move to Camp Nou at the end of the season destined to blossom into a star

The saga surrounding Frenkie de Jong’s future generated so much wild speculation about transfer fees and potential destinations over the last year that many may have forgotten what all the commotion is about.

As he dominated the front pages of the Spanish press and the list of European superpowers courting his signature kept growing, the hype reached a level of intensity that left even the Ajax star asking: “Does this ever stop?”  

After talks with Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain , the story came full circle on Wednesday as the man who has become irked by repeated comparisons to Johan Cruyff opted to follow in the pioneer’s footsteps in agreeing to join Barcelona.

The €75 million fee, with an extra €11m in bonuses to follow , will make the 21-year-old the Eredivisie’s most expensive export when he is sent to Camp Nou this summer. Not only is it a huge deal for Ajax and De Jong, it’s astronomical for his previous club, Willem II, and the team they share a youth academy with, RKC Waalwijk. The €5m the latter will receive from this transfer is more than their annual budget.

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The price seems steep for a player still in the middle of what is technically his first full season in the Ajax senior team but, given they have had a keen eye on him for well over a year, Barca know exactly what they are getting: a player of immense potential.

He has made just 66 appearances for Ajax and has five Netherlands caps to his name, but De Jong’s development and influential role in both exciting teams left Barca with no real choice but to do all they could to win the battle to sign him.

He seems such an easy fit for the Catalan side that it may feel more like destiny than the “dream” De Jong described. He is seen as a long-term replacement for Sergio Busquets, but he is comfortable moving further up field to take on a more attacking role in Ernesto Valverde's team.

“He absolutely fits Barcelona,” Ajax director and former star of both clubs Marc Overmars said , adding: “I hope he will do a fantastic job. I’ve got a special feeling.”

Frenkie De Jong Barcelona

The magnitude of the step up means De Jong may need time to adapt to La Liga, and the pace and intricacy of a team consisting of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho.

However, the way his mastery of the ball and imaginative passes quickly propelled him into big roles at Ajax and a resurgent Netherlands suggest a big one awaits him in Catalunya, too. As if to illustrate how much of a quick learner De Jong is, Ajax coach Erik ten Hag responded to reports a move to PSG was imminent by joking: “Yes, I’ve spoken to him. He’s already speaking French.”

The Arkel-born star is always available for a pass and knows what to do with it right away. He creates that advantage himself as he retreats to meet the ball instead of waiting on it to come to him, glancing around his shoulder on the way to survey his options and making space for himself.

“When I am on the pitch I play on intuition but I think a lot about the game as well,” he told The Guardian . “With my intuition, it is not just that I receive the ball and always think ‘I’m going to do this’ straight away, even though it just happens that way sometimes.

“Most good players play on intuition. Everyone has a little but I don’t know if you can learn it. Sometimes I’m planning. I’m always searching for the pass. I’m always looking to see my team-mate. ‘Is he free?’ Then you already know what to do. But sometimes the situation can change. Then you have to react and use your intuition. I try to have a picture when I receive the ball and know where everyone is. That’s one of the most important things for a midfielder."

Frenkie de Jong Ajax 2018-19

Daley Blind is the only player to have made more passes in the Eredivisie this season, which is mainly down to Ajax’s insistence on building from the back, but De Jong has much more to his game than just moving the ball along.

He not only affects how Ajax play, but he disrupts the opponents’ shape, too, either pressing quickly to win the ball and start an attack, or by pushing forward with it to pull defenders onto him and make space for him to find the free man. He has proven himself as a good dribbler who can drift past opponents with invasive runs and opening defences before releasing a team-mate.

Even rival coaches are in awe of him, as Feyenoord boss Giovanni van Bronckhorst said in Voetbal International : “That was the first thing I learned at Barcelona, ​​playing the ball to lure people away from situations. Pass, bounce and then space was free again. He has that too, wait with the ball until someone comes and then he plays it on. That is a big difference with the majority of players. They get the ball, are covered at five or 10 metres and play it away. No, wait until that opponent is with you!”

He had to wait until last September to get his first appearance for Ronald Koeman’s national team, but he already seems to have nailed down his place with impressive performances against France and Germany in the UEFA Nations League.

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Georginio Wijnaldum outlined how De Jong helps to make Oranje a better team, saying in November : “He is always able to create space because he is a) always available and b) with his actions he creates a lot of situations: he forces opponents to choose, they have to come out of position, lose their marker, which can automatically make space or give us a free man."

All this from a player whose real breakthrough at Ajax came just over a year ago at centre-back, when he was placed alongside Matthijs de Ligt to cover for injuries. He had long been knocking on the door, but he has shown such grace and potential that it is hard to believe he only returned to his rightful place in midfield this season. Still, he was so effective and smooth as a makeshift defender, taking the ball forward to allow Ajax to dominate high up the field and maintain pressure, that Ten Hag speculated his side would have won the league had De Jong not missed the last nine games through injury.

This season is his chance as part of a dynamic and exciting team to help guide Ajax to the title or far in the Champions League, but it has been obvious that De Jong is made for bigger and better things. After a year of speculation and appeals from Europe's strongest teams, it is time for him to show he can develop into a phenomenon.