Frenkie de Jong was bought by Barcelona in August 2019 with incredibly high expectations; he was looked at as the midfielder who would fill the massive holes left behind by Xavi and Andres Iniesta – a hole many midfielders purchased by the Blaugrana failed to fulfil.
De Jong was coming off of an immeasurably successful 18/19 campaign at Ajax, having reached the Champions League semi-final and even securing his place in the UEFA team of the year as the Best Midfielder of the competition. Once he finally moved over to the Catalan club, the future looked brighter than ever for the Dutch midfielder, and success inevitable. However, his first season turned out to average to the core. De Jong somewhat struggled to adapt to life rapidly in Catalonia, and with the confusingly altering demands of two different coaches, he was not able to fulfil his potential.
In comes Ronald Koeman — a manager de Jong had already worked with, as part of the Dutch National Team, and a manager who seemingly had far more clarity with how he was going to deploy the young midfielder in the team. In fact, in March 2020, Koeman had spoken to Marca regarding de Jong’s role at Barça. He said, “The position he is playing now is different to the national team and Ajax. He’s learning to play further forward like this, it’s not all bad, but it’s not his best position. For me, I think he performs better playing deeper.”
And so, the stage seemed set; de Jong was expected to finally return to his best under the Dutch tactician. Two starting midfielders in the form of Arturo Vidal and Ivan Rakitic had also exited before the 20/21 season: it seemed that it was now only a matter of time that the 23-year-old would start shining in the Blaugrana kit, in his correct position as a deeper midfielder and as an undisputed starter.
Contrary to all expectations, de Jong had an average start to the season. Being deployed as one of the two double pivots partnering the brilliant Sergio Busquets, de Jong was unable to exploit the attacking third. Furthermore, rather than carrying the ball out of his position like he would so often do at Ajax and the Dutch national team, his role felt far more restricted, keeping him out of the action.
Luckily, Koeman realised his mistake, and in Barça’s first game of 2021 against Huesca, he deployed Frenkie de Jong as a right interior in a three-man midfield, alongside Busquets and Pedri. Having already played as an emergency centre-back and as a defensive midfielder, this was de Jong’s opportunity to play the farthest upfield that he had done so all season. Thankfully, he thrived immensely in this match, having great freedom to create and be involved in the run of play.
Throughout 2021, the star midfielder has played fourteen games in this newfound interior position, enjoying great success as a pivotal man to Barça’s creative play. Consequently, the Dutchman’s goal contribution output skyrocketed; in fourteen games playing as a central midfielder, de Jong scored six and assisted four – numbers that are incredible for any world-class midfielder. He started to fulfil the lack of a number 9 in the team.
Interestingly, these numbers are exponentially larger than his numbers playing in a defensive midfield role, in which the midfielder was only able to register two assists in twenty games. Ironically, it is in the same position that Koeman criticised de Jong’s former coaches for deploying him in Barça.
In his newfound position, de Jong began to be one of the key creators and an actively involved member in Barça’s development phase. His xGBuildup90 — a metric that measures all the attacking actions of a player per 90 except key passes or shots — is an impressive 0.77 compared to last season’s 0.46. Additionally, his xGChain90 — the same as xGBuildup but inclusive of shots and key passes — has improved hugely to 0.95 as compared to his last season’s xGChain90 of 0.57. The 23-year-old has also had a great direct output to attack this season, averaging 1.1 key passes per game.
In this position, de Jong was actively playing the role of a box-to-box midfielder, often being at the end of a Lionel Messi through-ball in the opposition box. He was becoming increasingly unpredictable and twice the workhorse he already had been for the Garnet and the Blue. It seemed that his best position had finally been found for Barça and that he would now be sticking to it.
However, there was yet another change of tactical systems in the work, and if there is any player in the team who would need to adapt their position to suit an altered system, it is Frenkie de Jong. With injuries to both of Barça’s best central defenders — Ronald Araujo and Gerard Pique — Koeman was left with a terribly vulnerable defence going into the second leg clash against Paris Saint Germain.
What was a rather sudden change of pace for the young Dutch midfielder’s role in the team, he was deployed as a centre-back against PSG, expected to be the key in Barça’s buildup play for the match. De Jong had already played four matches as a centre-back in the season, yet there was still some confusion among the fanbase as to what his role would be in the match.
Impressively, the Dutchman put in a masterclass performance, playing in the Libero role that Koeman himself was famous for playing under Johan Cruyff’s dream team. Throughout the entire match, de Jong was an integral part of the ball retention and pushing it forward, using his intelligent and swift passing lanes to progress the ball from deeper positions neatly. He executed 98 accurate passes with a 94.2% passing accuracy, and he also had 113 touches. In this new-found position, while de Jong was a centre-back on paper, he played a role far closer to a single pivot, doing so with pure class and perfection.
For the next two La Liga matches against Huesca and Real Sociedad, Koeman opted for a similar three-at-the-back system, championing the versatile midfielder in the Libero role. Once again, he executed his role to perfection, having a pass accuracy of 98.8% against Huesca and 95.9% against Real Sociedad. Moreover, the match against La Real was specifically a large test for de Jong in this role, as they are a team that prefer to press very high and suffocate opposition teams. De Jong managed to play out of their press with ease, being an extremely reliable defender turned single pivot — or false centre-back as the online fanbase have come to term his new role.
De Jong’s versatility as a midfielder is unparalleled across all the top five leagues in Europe. The Dutch midfielder can execute a vast array of roles in the team and is a true squad player. He has played as a traditional centre-back, single pivot, double pivot, central midfielder, and now in the Libero role as a centre-back, performing flawlessly in each of these roles.
Concurrently, de Jong’s heatmap is among the most impressive in Europe, profoundly resembling fellow world-class midfielder Josua Kimmich’s heat-map throughout the season.
Whether this Libero role is de Jong’s permanent role as we advance is yet to be determined, as the Dutchman has excelled in all roles he has been deployed in this season. However, his best form surely came in the fourteen game spell wherein he played as a right interior. His involvement in Barça’s progressive play was unparalleled, and he was all over the field, dominating nearly every aspect of the midfield. Whatever Frenkie de Jong’s role is for the foreseeable future, one thing is for sure, he will execute each and every task he needs to for the benefit of the Blaugranas.
Spotlight: Pedri and Busquets put up a midfield masterclass for Spain
International breaks are often despised by the fans. Though there are many reasons to this, the aptest example at the moment would be the one facing Bayern Munich fans. Their talisman, their top scorer, their best player Robert Lewandowski got injured playing against Andorra, a team ranked 151st in the world by FIFA. The Polish striker will now miss a match against RB Leipzig as well as both legs in the Bavarian’s Champions League tie against Paris Saint-Germain. International breaks are usually regarded as a nuisance. However, the current one has given Culés every reason to be happy.
Of the 14 players called up, eight had at least one goal contribution. A total of 14 goal contributions. This small hiatus from club football has been fruitful. Out of all these players, few have had an international break as productive as that of Pedri and Sergio Busquets’ have had with Spain.
Against Kosovo, both of them were at the top of their game. Though Jordi Alba got an assist, and it was a good performance from him, it was unfortunately not as much of a masterclass as it was for these two midfielders.
Following Spain’s 1-2 victory over Georgia, a few conclusions could be drawn. One was less of a conclusion. More of a fact that was just solidified yet again; once you put Pedri in the starting XI, you weren’t getting him out.
Luis Enrique yet again started 18-year-old Pedri Gonzalez in Spain’s midfield against Kosovo. In Spain’s 4-3-3, Pedri occupied the left interior position. A performance overflowing with confidence and personality, displaying both maturity and inventiveness.
In the 70 minutes that he played, the Spaniard got an assist. In all honesty, he could have gotten yet another assist if not for Ferran Torres’ shot being saved. However, what makes Pedri special is how he manages to stand out even without necessarily playing a direct part in the goals. It’s his simple style of play, his composure, his positioning, everything combined to make him a player who looks like he has been playing at this level for a decade.
Spain were clearly the dominant side yesterday. Not only statistically, but even on the field from what we could see. 918 passes to Kosovo’s 216, Luis Enrique’s side had 80.9% of the possession according to Whoscored. Out of 58 passes attempted, Pedri completed 49 leading to a completion rate of more than 90%. He was reliable in possession, as usual. Shielding the ball well with his body, even against larger opponents playing physically he has no problems.
This is partly due to his shielding, but also due to the fact that the opposition gets nowhere close to him when he has the ball. Receiving the ball, Pedri doesn’t always need to look up as we have seen. He is aware of his teammates’ positions in order to play quick passes to them. The similar was apparent yesterday, but when he did look up, his decision making would take center-stage.
Just because a player is open does not mean he is necessarily a good passing option. Kosovo are managed by Bernard Challandes, an admirer of total football, so much so that he bought an Ajax pennant to place on his car as a youngster. His team was tactically very smart. They would allow the interiors to receive the balls behind the lines after which multiple players would immediately press him.
Pedri was clearly aware of this. He would drop besides Sergio Busquets to receive the ball at times, and so would Koke. The interiors dropping back would allow the pivot, Sergio Busquets, either a simple pass to them or one to the wings to bypass the pressing trap. Pedri would scan the field well and though he saw Koke or Alvaro Morata open to receive many times, he would gauge the situation before pulling the trigger on the pass.
This decision-making when passing was one of the highlights of Pedri’s performance. The right passes with the right timing and with the right weight applied on them.
At the bottom of midfield in a 4-3-3 lies the pivot. A position that requires the highest levels of awareness, intelligence, decision-making and timing both in and out of possession. In short, a position tailor-made for Sergio Busquets.
The Octopus of Badia, he’s one of the players we will miss most when gone. To encapsulate Busquets’ performance yesterday, one can take a look at the times when the teams were contesting for the second-ball. Technically inferior to Spain, these were occasions for Challandes’ team to dominate Spain physically and play their forwards through on goal.
The teams would scramble and fight to get the second or third ball, the Kosovan players would come charging like a torrent onto la roja. Spain would know where to get the ball to next. Amidst the chaos, they would somehow get the ball to Busquets. A second later, the ball would be past the Kosovan players, past the torrent restoring tranquillity. Having been caught off-balance and the very laws of physics, along with their momentum, against them, the Kosovans could do nothing.
Sergio Busquets had one of his best games of the season yesterday. Deputizing at the base of midfield, he would be the first player the defenders would look to get the ball to. Possession through build-up at the heart of the team, Busquets at the heart of the build-up, he was indispensable. Through optimal positioning, he was always a passing option for his teammates leading to him having 7.5% of the team’s possession. However, his strongest asset yesterday? Line-breaking passes.
By playing the perfect line-breaking pass to his Spanish teammates, the veteran midfielder would make it look as if Spain had way more space than they actually did. Despite the risky nature of these passes, a 94% success rate with 87 passes attempted is very impressive. Out of the eight long-balls attempted, he completed seven. Busquets also had four key passes, the joint-most with three other Spain players.
Kosovo would often look to launch balls forward and attempt to win aerial duels. Yesterday, Busquets had to step in often in these situations. Though not very dominant with a 43% success rate, he attempted 14 aerials duels. On the ground, however, he was unbeatable. Four tackles attempted; four tackles won. What made these yet more impressive was the timing. Most, if not all tackles and duels were such that they stopped the opposition’s counter-attacks.
To sum it up, Serio Busquets, Jordi Alba, and Pedri have essentially cemented their spot for Spain in the Euros. All three Barcelona players have shown to play at a very high level in these past few matches. This form carried over to the club’s matches presents a big reason to be optimistic for the fans.