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Barcelona's accidental hero: Why De Jong is belatedly becoming the complete midfielder

12:30 AM IST 29/01/21
Frenkie de Jong Ronald Koeman Barcelona GFX
The Blaugrana bought the Netherlands international to eventually replace Sergio Busquets but he is now thriving in a more advanced position

Barcelona have revived themselves after a catastrophic 2020 and Frenkie de Jong’s newfound attacking nous has been crucial to the club’s change of fortunes.

This was exhibited in a microcosm in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday, when a mediocre Blaugrana display was energised by their Dutchman, who grabbed the winner against second division Rayo Vallecano. It was De Jong's fourth goal in seven games, after three in his first 62 for the club.

Barca, of course, remain mired in debt, in danger of bankruptcy having blown nearly €300 million (£265m/$363m) on misfits Antoine Griezmann and Philippe Coutinho, but the €75m (£66m/$91m) investment in De Jong is beginning to look like money well spent.

The midfielder had a difficult first season at Barcelona. He began the 2019-20 campaign brightly but quickly dulled, dragged into the monotony of Ernesto Valverde and Quique Setien's football.

Even after the appointment of Ronald Koeman as coach – heralded as ideal for De Jong – the former Ajax ace was still a muted version of himself, but Barcelona are now finally seeing his value, even if it is manifesting in an unexpected fashion, and has happened almost by accident.

When De Jong, now 23, first arrived at Camp Nou, he was viewed as the long-term replacement for Sergio Busquets, someone with the skill-set to play at the base of the midfield, and, after the Spain international eventually retires, he may well drop back into that position.

However, right now, De Jong is thriving in one of the two advanced roles in the midfield three, ironically, the very same position Koeman previously tried to save him from. 

As De Jong initially struggled to make an impact at Camp Nou, unable to usurp Busquets in the middle of the park, Koeman, while still Holland coach, said he believed it would take his compatriot time to adjust to life in the Catalan capital.

“This year is a transition for him, like for me when I signed for Barca in 1989,” Koeman told Diario Sport in April 2020. “He's a very smart boy and perfect for football. He'll succeed, for sure. What's hurting him is that he's not playing in his natural position, like at Ajax.”

When Koeman took over at Barca last year, he tried to set up a double pivot role for De Jong, similar to that which he occupied at Ajax so successfully, but Busquets is not Lasse Schone. The Barcelona man wants the ball to start attacking plays, as does Frenkie.

“They have grown accustomed to being the base of each move,” wrote Didac Peyret in Sport. “And that tendency caused discomfort when they play together.”

At other times, De Jong was even forced into the centre-back position, with his own versatility counting against him, as much as it is a boon for his coach. He performed adequately in defence, without shining, fortuitously for him and for Barcelona, given his current contributions at the other end of the field. 

Eventually, Koeman was forced to change tack despite his stubborn attitude and insistence on a 4-2-3-1 formation. A half-hearted version of the 4-3-3, which still had the prior system at its core, was attempted but then promptly abandoned at the turn of the year.

That completely unlocked De Jong, who is now afforded a box-to-box role in a proper 4-3-3 with the responsibility of arriving in the opposition box at the right time to put the finishing touches on moves and provide a more physical presence.

With Lionel Messi often located in deeper positions, it suits Barcelona to have a player of De Jong’s stature as an aerial target.

Messi, still the team’s best and most important player, is yet again their top scorer, but as the years go by his astonishing goalscoring capabilities are diminishing. De Jong is helping to ease the load, particularly as Griezmann has not yet hit his stride – and might never.

Barcelona’s other regular central midfield starter, Pedri, also has license to roam into the box, which represents a further boost for Messi. That wouldn’t be possible without De Jong’s impressive adaptation to his new midfield position.

Without Messi, Barcelona struggled against Elche in their last La Liga outing but De Jong’s goal and inch-perfect assist for Riqui Puig helped them take three points home from the Estadio Martinez Valero courtesy of a 2-0 win.

De Jong's presence in the box was even more pronounced against Rayo, where the Netherlands international hit the crossbar and had a goal disallowed for offside, from Messi’s cross, before scoring again.

“We need our midfielders to be offensive, and he helps build from the back,” Koeman told reporters. “We’ve spoken with him to help his offensive game and score more than one goal per season. He’s more complete now than when he played for Ajax.”

The midfielder has also become a leader in his second campaign. Although in the first year, along with Marc-Andre ter Stegen, he was one of the players that sought more demanding training sessions, it is only now he feels emboldened to take charge on and off the pitch. The culture at Barcelona is changing.

At times, De Jong drives forward with the ball, taking the team by the scruff of the neck, and while dribbling is not his forte, he is hard to stop for defenders, a truck, reminiscent of Yaya Toure in this particular regard.

“This is not the Ajax Frenkie, nor the Holland Frenkie, this is the Barca Frenkie,” noted Peyret.

Adding attacking strings to his bow means he has become a complete midfielder, an all-rounder, increasingly important and valued in the modern game. With 144 ball recoveries this season, he ranks second at the club, while his four assists make him the third top provider. 

Tally those with De Jong’s five goals and he is already just one goal contribution short of his best tally at Ajax in a campaign, 10, in 2017-18.

Perhaps 2021 will be the year of Barcelona’s No.21, but he is unlikely to hit his ceiling any time soon.

De Jong is a keen student of the game, watching as much football as he can, hugely self-critical and ambitious. There is plenty of growth to come – this is just the beginning.