The middle of the park is a highly debated area of the pitch when it comes to Barcelona. During the golden years of Pep Guardiola and even before that, the midfield was always the engine of the whole squad.
Of course, when you have players like Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets at their peak, life suddenly becomes that much easier to handle. And so do the opposition. However, as fruitful and as productive as La Masia is to this day, they cannot be expected to ‘churn out’ a golden generation of midfielders every year or so.
Unfortunately, as time passed and Barcelona changed with it, the quality also dropped. Significantly. Partly it’s not the fault of the club, but the lack of faith in the youth and a broken sporting project after a broken sporting project have indeed resulted in the engine of the squad stalling more often than not.
With that being said, and despite numerous blunders in the market over the years, the arrival of Frenkie de Jong was hailed as the salvation among the Culés. The young Dutchman was essentially born and bred in the Ajax academy, the closest thing to La Masia on the planet, and seemed to be a cut above the rest even at such a tender age. Securing his services was a must, and although the likes of Paris Saint-Germain and even Bayern Munich offered some competition, de Jong’s heart was always set on the Camp Nou.
And of course, every player adapts to a new team at his own pace. Some need a week while others may need a year. Not to mention that the Azulgrana’s system is somewhat unique in the world of football, meaning that not every player may have that special something to thrive in Catalonia. For de Jong, however, there was never any doubt – he was the chosen one.
The chosen one to lead Barcelona into the future, the chosen one to replace the likes of Xavi and Iniesta and the chosen one to usher a new era of dominance that once again stems from that middle of the pitch. Until he was not.
Now 23 years of age, de Jong is in his second season at Barcelona and as was the case when he first arrived to the Camp Nou, the Dutchman seems to be struggling. Immensely.
Of course, let’s not forget that Ronald Koeman is his third Barcelona coach in around half as many years he has been here and that makes this situation that much more complicated. Each of Ernesto Valverde, Quique Setién and now Koeman have had a different vision of his role, resulting in the young midfielder being shifted across the pitch.
From a deeper position in a sole pivot role to the vast drifting number eight and even the advancing attacking midfielder who offers runs behind the opposition’s line. De Jong certainly has his qualities, but for one reason or the other, he just has not been able to showcase them just yet.
But this ‘yet’ is key here. Yes, he’s now in his second full season at Barcelona, and even under Koeman who’s made him the very hub of the whole team, he has not looked as robust as he once was. But apart from Lionel Messi, who has also been affected to a certain extent, not a single player is without fault.
As soon as the wheels on the whole structure start squealing, the individuals will also suffer as a direct result of that. Barcelona, as of right now, are far from a functioning system. But that is not an excuse for de Jong to hide behind.
If he is indeed to be the anchor of Barcelona’s system for the years to come, he needs to be showing much more than he is. We know the Dutchman is one of the best progressors of the ball on the planet, but apart from his occasional mazy runs, there’s been nothing really to write home about.
He seems too safe and timid on the ball, and even though ball recycling is an essential aspect of Barcelona’s offensive tactics, he looks slothful in possession, taking unnecessary touches and processing information at a much lower rate than an elite midfielder should. As a matter of fact, much slower than he did at Ajax.
Similarly, there have been issues off the ball as well. Whether he’s working within a double-pivot structure or as a lone number six, he is not exactly instilling defensive confidence and security with his performances. Again we come back to the structural problems that are plaguing Barcelona as one man can certainly not be expected to carry all of the team’s problems on his shoulders. But that’s not an entirely alien concept to the Catalans, is it?
Be that as it may, with de Jong’s problems persisting after three managerial changes and just over a year at Barcelona, it was just a matter of time before rumours started piling up. If the latest word on the street is to be believed, the Dutchman is once again a big target for Bayern Munich, which poses a serious question – should Barcelona sell him to gather funds in these desperate times? Or should they bet on him a while longer?
The answer is more complicated than it may seem at first, but at this point in time, selling de Jong would be a massive mistake. Yes, his talent and skill alone mean that he was somehow expected to become the world’s best midfielder as soon as he arrived at Barcelona. But many seem to forget that we’re still talking about a 23-year-old player.
When you remember that the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Thiago and the rest reached their peak only when they were in their late 20s, the picture suddenly becomes a bit clearer. Football nowadays is more a business than a game.
Therefore, coaches, owners and fans expect results overnight. De Jong is a player of tremendous talent – the performance against Levante proved that – and of course, the expectations are high. But he is also a player in development who’s currently a part of an extraordinarily unstructured squad.
For that reason alone, he deserves to be given some leeway and time to find his footing. However, there’s also the other side of the coin that has to be taken into account.
At the moment, there are midfielders within the club’s systems that seem to have a much better understanding of the team’s needs and philosophy who may not be given a chance to shine because of the Dutchman.
This is not to say that they cannot coexist within the squad, but there will come a point when things should be analysed objectively and a spot in the team given to the one who deserves it most.
It could still be Frenkie de Jong who ends up reaching his potential and being the superstar Barcelona want and need him to be. But that depends solely on him and whether or not he can perform to the best of his abilities.
Barcelona’s rebirth is inevitable, but it will take time
Barcelona’s rebirth is just around the corner. In early March, the club will finally get their long-awaited new president following the tyranny that was Josep Maria Bartomeu’s tenure. And perhaps ‘tyranny’ may be a bit too harsh of a verdict, but how else would you call years of systematically destroying the club, consciously or subconsciously, plunging it deeper and deeper into the abyss? On second thoughts, ‘tyranny‘ will just have to do.
But all of that is firmly behind us now. In just weeks’ time, the Catalan giant will rise once more, reborn from the ashes of its fallen self to conquer the world anew. But things in football are never really that easy, are they? Everyone knows you can’t win all the time.
Even the greatest of teams such as Pep Guardiola’s very own Barcelona had their rise, peak and subsequent downfall. And there are not many clubs out there who have faced the harsh reality of building new dynasties from scratch as much as Barcelona have.
So if history is any indication at all, change takes time and the upcoming presidential tenure at the club will be no different. But let’s get one thing clear right away – this is not meant to bash any of the three candidates nor promote them either. All three of Joan Laporta, Victor Font and Antoni Freixa have their own visions of the direction in which to take their beloved club.
However, to think everything will suddenly and immediately change upon their appointment would be foolish. No, in March, we’re not getting the rebirth; we’re only getting the very beginning of one. With a new president sitting in that chair and appointing a new board, Barcelona will once again lay the groundwork for future success.
The immediate appointment of the new upper hierarchy might boost the morale, of course. And that in itself could then translate to a boost on the pitch as well. But a new president can only do as much in such a short amount of time. The real battles are always fought on the pitches and there, Barcelona are still looking like a broken team.
This too, of course, can be fixed over time. With the appropriate staff behind the scenes, a much better scouting department, physios, psychologists and a step-by-step tactical and squad overhaul, we can start hoping for result. But those are all long-term goals that require patience both from us the fans and the team itself.
Unfortunately, years of failure in the market, chasing ghosts of our pasts and blind picks, have resulted in a financially distorted club. Where once was wealth and prosperity now we only have crumbs of former glory. Yes, Barcelona are still a powerful outfit that can and should be aiming to attract only the very best.
But we also have to remember that each of the three candidates is seemingly putting a lot of emphasis on going back to the roots. ‘The roots‘ here mean La Masia, the academy and the youth. But just as is the case with any sporting project, especially the ones founded on the strength coming from within, this takes time to develop. Rome wasn’t built overnight. Nor was La Masia or Barcelona’s legacy, for that matter.
The Azulgranas really do have incredible talent in their youth ranks and this is definitely a pool of players that should be utilised in the future. We shouldn’t, however, expect to find the new Golden Generation right around the corner.
We have been fooled into thinking the likes of Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández, Sergio Busquets and Lionel Messi are the standard and the rule. Unfortunately, as much as we like to keep telling ourselves otherwise, they are very much the exception to the rule; the standout and likely a one-in-a-million crop of players that flourished under a brilliant manager.
So many things had to be in the right place for them to make it, and somehow, the stars had aligned back then to ensure their development into footballing giants. It would be foolish to expect the same thing to happen again, or rather, to happen that quickly.
But with the right foundations, the right personnel, trust and hope, why shouldn’t we believe in it happening once more? After all, we have the secret recipe for success but are too afraid to use it. Why? Well, the times have changed since Barcelona last ruled the world.
Back in 2009, success was not guaranteed nor was is so expected and the fans were nowhere near as spoilt as they are now. Back then, the coach actually had the time to build a squad, groom them and mould them in his image. That’s what Pep did and miraculously enough, it didn’t take him years, not even months, to start making something truly incredible.
And in so many ways, 2021 mirrors that exact same situation. Before Pep’s time, Frank Rijkaard had been struggling for a while and his team, despite having some big names, was in a need of an overhaul. In that regard, Barcelona were entering their transitional period, the same one they are experiencing now.
Rijkaard bowed out from the stage having finished third in La Liga and having exited both Copa del Rey and the Champions League in the semi-finals. It was a valiant effort for a broken team but ultimately, he finished his tenure with a trophyless season. But in so many ways, that 2007/08 campaign was a start of a new story; one that promoted trust in the youth, power from within and confidence in the beginning of a rise to glory.
So what can we learn from that? We must accept that change is sometimes necessary but that it can cost a lot. In football, results and trophies matter, that’s in the nature of the sport. But sometimes you have to take a step back before you jump two steps forward. 2020 wasn’t easy and 2021 is looking equally as exhausting and challenging. But it’s also necessary.
Already, in a season that may seem full of pain, anger and disappointment, we’ve seen glimpses of what’s to come. Players like Pedri, Frenkie de Jong and Ronald Araújo rising to the occasion to guide us to a better future. That future may also be without Lionel Messi, the one player who embodies this club the most.
But we should also remember Pep had to lose, or rather let go of Ronaldinho to kickstart his great overhaul. Both players were and still are icons of the club but a new era requires new heroes and new leaders. So even if Messi leaves this coming summer, the world won’t suddenly stop, nor should Barcelona’s strive for greatness.
In March, a new president will get elected and the foundation for a better future will finally be set. It will take time and it won’t suddenly solve all of our problems.
But it will give us a push that we oh so need. Barcelona’s rebirth is just around the corner.
Don’t give up hope in the moment of our greatest triumph.