No precipitation, overcast but predictable weather, a fairly ordinary Wednesday at El Prat airport in Catalonia. On the morning of 23rd January 2019, the private jet took off-as rather hastily so-scheduled. Onboard, Oscar Grau and Pep Segura had a single intention as they travelled to Amsterdam; to bring Frenkie De Jong to Barcelona.
Eredivisie winner, UEFA Midfielder of the Season, Champion’s League semi-finalist, Eredivisie Player of the Season and so on. To say all the big clubs across Europe wanted Frenkie De Jong was an understatement. He had the most important people in FC Barcelona, imperatively travelling a thousand miles to meet him. At the age of 22, the Dutchman had the world at his feet.
“It was a hard time actually because all the clubs are telling you things and you don’t even see anything anymore,”
“But there was one moment. The president and all the guys [on the board] came to Amsterdam and that really convinced me — so all the credit to those guys.”
That is what Frenkie de Jong had to say about his arrival at Barcelona. The moment he knew he was destined to be a Blaugrana
The 2020/21 season has been one where de Jong has established himself as one of the most important players at Barcelona and one of the best midfielders in the world. Though he had a slow start, playing as a double pivot, the second half of the season saw him unshackled and soaring in Barcelona’s near-unshakeable midfield. This article will observe and dissect de Jong’s 2020/21 season at FC Barcelona.
Slave to the system
The 2020/21 season brought forth a sub-par start for Barcelona. There were performances where the team shone, but the players were not performing optimally. Atletico Madrid, undefeated in the first nine games, and Real Sociedad, overperforming, led the way in La Liga. Barcelona, deservedly but regrettably, sat fifth in the table after 10 matchdays.
Initially, Ronald Koeman deployed a 4-2-3-1 formation. In this, Frenkie de Jong and Sergio Busquets would be the two pivots. In hindsight, the fact that the two pivots underperformed despite being the core of the formation, should have meant a shift to a different formation would be imminent. However, the Dutch manager continued with this formation.
At Ajax, de Jong would regularly glide forward with the ball at his feet. Though he would be the more mobile of the two pivots in Koeman’s system, there was a clear mismatch between the role and the player. Like Ousmane Dembele as a number nine or Philippe Coutinho as a winger, he had a minimal meaningful influence on the game. Not only was his previous level of football not seen due to this, but it also resulted in him losing possession, hesitating to play risky passes, essentially seeming like half the footballer he was previously.
As a pivot, he had a significant defensive workload along the attacking part. At times, the defensive duties would end up outweighing the attacking ones. De Jong would start alongside Sergio Busquets but would have the duty of moving and vertically in his channel whereas the Spaniard would cover more area laterally.
To show the contrast between de Jong in 2020 and 2021, we can look at his performances before and since December. Before December, he had three shots, no goals, and no assists in nine games. Between December and the end of February, 15 matches, the 24-year-old accumulated seven shots, four assists, and three goals in La Liga alone. In this period, his rise was explosive and led to him arguably being the most important and consistent player for Barcelona apart from, of course, Lionel Messi. But what exactly led to this paradigm shift?
After the 4-2-3-1, the lack of directness led to a switch to the 3-5-2. However, the 4-3-3 was the formation in which de Jong shone brightest. Against Huesca on the 4th of January this year, Koeman deployed said formation with Pedri and de Jong as the interiors, with Sergio Busquets as a single pivot.
In this new system, Frenkie de Jong would yet again cover more area vertically rather than horizontally. When in need of progression, the Dutchman would drop back alongside the Spanish veteran. For circulation, however, de Jong was essentially the heart of the team. Though Messi’s influence in the final third remains unmatched, it was de Jong who circulated the ball all over the field.
In the 27th minute, Messi picked up the ball in the left channel. Spotting space in the box, de Jong rushed forward to occupy a spot alongside Martin Braithwaite. Messi’s perfect cross found the former’s foot in a half-volley, leading to the goal. The greatest change seen in this formation was undoubtedly de Jong’s positioning. He would often make runs into the box, leading to his figures for goal contributions rising consistently.
Against Real Sociedad in the Supercup, we saw the pinnacle of his ability to compensate for the lack of a proper number nine. Barcelona circulated the ball in the final third, as Griezmann picked it up on the left from a Braithwaite layoff. Driving forward, only the Dutchman was making a run into the box. De Jong’s off-the-ball movement was immaculate as he perfectly timed his run to come in front of his marker. To catch the ball perfectly, he stretched out and essentially tilted mid-air significantly to leading to a spectacular goal that would make compatriot Robin Van Persie proud.
This season, along with excellent longevity playing over 3000 minutes in La Liga alone, de Jong also showed his importance as a utility player. When Gerard Pique was injured, the Dutchman played four matches as a centre-back in a back-three. His performances clearly showed his Ajax training paid off, as he made the position his own for that tenure. Despite this, his future has to be in midfield. The unique, highly-polished skillset he offers is one the midfield should not miss out on.
Everything boils down to ball progression when it comes to Frenkie de Jong. Acting as the right interior midfielder acted as a catalyst for his ball progression. When playing as a pivot, his dynamism was very much limited. In this new position, he blossomed. This season in La Liga, he ranked second for through-balls, ninth for minutes played, second for progressive carries, second for total touches and fifth for passes into the final third, among other similar statistics. Not to forget his incredible performances in Barcelona’s run to the Copa del Rey title.
His influence has been undeniable. Ronald Koeman had intended to make the 24-year-old a crucial player all along, and he did, just not in the way he set out to do so.
A talisman for the future?
When we look back at Frenkie de Jong’s career at Barcelona in a decade or so, the 2020/21 season will undoubtedly be one of the defining ones. Though the team as a whole has disappointed often, among the bleak days, his emergence has been a ray of hope. The previous core of the team, Messi, Busquets, Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba, are no longer at their peak. Some of them remain amongst the best in the world in their positions. Some are, unfortunately, a liability at times.
Luckily for Barcelona, the next generation is waiting, or rather biding their time, in the wings. Players like Frenkie, Ansu Fati and Pedri Gonzalez. They are going to be the ones to lead FC Barcelona for the years to come. They have come and taken their opportunities, their message loud and clear; The starting spot is theirs, and it’s not going to be easy for anyone to take it away. It’s these players that give hope to cules when the first team fails to do so.
And there’s nobody better than Frenkie de Jong to lead this generation.
Barça Universal rating: 8.5/10