Dutch sensation Frenkie de Jong joined FC Barcelona on the 23rd of January for a €75 million initial fee, with bonuses that could take the total to €86 million. The transfer succeeded a huge saga in which the Dutchman was linked to other major clubs in Europe like Manchester City and PSG.
As a matter of fact, the end of the saga was quite iconic as Josep Bartomeu, the former President of Barcelona, flew to the Netherlands in order to get de Jong’s signature and hijack his move to PSG.
Frenkie de Jong was presented in the summer of 2019 and joined the team for pre-season. The Dutchman has played under 3 managers in less than 2 complete seasons and earns a reported €16 million per year. What seemed a match made in heaven has gone wry, as Frenkie de Jong has failed to impress in Blaugrana colours (so far).
Early years under Valverde
De Jong’s start at his dream club was quite rocky. Barcelona and Valverde were under tremendous pressure following the team’s collapse at Anfield, an event which ruined a potential treble season. De Jong was brought in along with Antoine Griezmann, in order to rejuvenate the squad. In the 19/20 season, Valverde played a 4-3-3 formation, and de Jong was deployed as a left centre-midfielder with Sergio Busquets playing as the deep-lying playmaker in the pivot. While de Jong is a versatile player and can play anywhere in the midfield, there was a consensus that he played best as a defensive midfielder.
Valverde was criticized by journalists and fans for playing the Dutchman out of position; De Jong was often seen operating on the left-flank instead of being allowed to dictate from deep. None the less, he had a decent first half of the season. In January 2020, Barcelona lost to Atletico Madrid in the semi-finals of the Supercopa de Espana, and Ernesto Valverde became the first Barcelona manager to be sacked since Louis van Gaal in 2003. Valverde’s dismissal spelt change at Barcelona as the reigns to the Catalan club were given to Quique Setien.
Quique Setien’s appointment came with both excitement and uncertainty. The manager was known for his possession-based football, but on the other hand, he had never won silverware in his career. While there was uncertainty regarding the results of the team, it seemed almost certain that Frenkie de Jong would excel under a manager like Setien. That did not end up happening.
The first few months, Setien experimented a 3 at-the-back formation, but quickly abandoned the idea after poor results. For the remainder of the season, Barcelona played a 4-3-3 or a 4-3-1-2, and once again de Jong was made to play as a centre-midfielder instead of a defensive-midfielder.
The Dutchman was not making the line-breaking passes he was while at Ajax, or while playing for the Netherlands team, and neither was he progressing the ball like he used to. The presence of Busquets meant that de Jong could not see the ball as often as he used to, but on the occasions that he did possess the ball, he did not seem to control the game.
De Jong’s best game in a Barcelona shirt came against Napoli in second-leg of the Champions League knock-out stages. The Dutchman was weaving his way past defenders, linking up with team-mates, making threatening passes and dominating the midfield overall. He ended the game with a 92% passing accuracy, 3 dribbles, 6 duels won and 1 key pass.
While fans were hoping that that version of de Jong is the one they see from here on out, that did not end up happening. In the team’s 2-8 humiliation versus Bayern, the Dutchman was dominated by Leon Goretzka. While he was still one of Barcelona’s better performers, a player of his quality, who has the ability to dictate games, needed to have done more.
Barcelona ended the 19/20 season trophyless and disgracefully. de Jong had a decent debut season. Not world-class but it was understood that he would require one season to be fully integrated into the team.
Enter Ronald Koeman
Barcelona legend, and manager of the Dutch National Team, Ronald Koeman was entrusted with Barcelona’s managerial job following the sacking of Setien. His appointment, just like his predecessor’s, came with both excitement and doubt. However, it finally seemed as if de Jong had found a manager capable of getting the best out of him, as Koeman had managed the 23-year-old in the Dutch national team.
Ronald Koeman has lined up Barcelona in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with de Jong playing as one of the midfielders – this is the same position he played at Ajax. 1 year of experience, a manager he had worked with previously, and a position he was familiar with, de Jong finally had all the tools in his arsenal to not only play well but play well consistently. However, that has not been the case.
So far, De Jong has been average. Most of his passes consist of side passes or back passes. While this type of passing is imperative in a possession-based system, a Barcelona midfielder must be able to make key through balls to an extent. The midfielder does attempt the occasional lobbed passed into the box, but that is usually ineffective due to the lack of tall players in the team.
The Dutchman was highly valued for his ability to play simple football – quick passes, great positional play, and excellent movement. He looks lost in the Barcelona side, most of his game time is spent in receiving the ball, scanning the pitch and making a diagonal pass.
He holds on to the ball for too long, and the end result is an ineffective pass. A double-pivot system means that the midfielders have to have defensive prowess. De Jong has great defensive ability but is still often beaten in the midfield. Sometimes he’s dribbled past, and he oftentimes his tackles and interceptions wrongly.
On a list of Barcelona’s worst performers this season, de Jong will not make an appearance. He hasn’t been especially poor, but he hasn’t been good either. He’s been simply average. Ineffective. Even though this is only his second season, the issue lies in the fact that the Dutchman has made zero progress during his Blaugrana tenure.
There has been no development since his first game for Barcelona, and his most recent game against Juventus. If anything, he has regressed. A player can only perform so well in an incompetent system, but a player of de Jong’s calibre, one who came with an €86 million price tag needs to perform at a certain level.
World-class players do not need to be ‘unlocked’ by their team-mates and managers. Forget Lionel Messi, Riqui Puig is a testament to this. The 21-year-old Spaniard is an excellent midfielder. Even though he has been baselessly neglected by Koeman, in the few minutes he has played, he has exponentially outperformed de Jong — in every single sector.
Frenkie de Jong is an excellent player with unlimited potential. There was a reason he was sought by great footballing minds like Pep Guardiola, Thomas Tuchel and Hansi Flick. It is acceptable to have rough patches, but there being zero development in almost 2 years is unacceptable. Barcelona’s humiliating losses in the last few seasons have been caused primarily by players’ lack of ability to take responsibility.
The truth is that regardless of all external factors, the Dutchman was purchased to do a job, and he needs to do it. Incompetent managers and unfamiliar positions are obstacles that de Jong is going to face in his Barcelona career, and he needs to decide whether he will treat these obstacles as challenges or as excuses.
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.