As Frenkie has had to switch from Ajax’s 4–2–3–1 to Barça’s 4–3–3, the question has been revolving around whether he should play as an interior or a pivot. And, crucially: can De Jong and Busquets play together?
The Barça midfield is where all the witchcraft and wizardry takes place. It is the department that makes Barcelona so distinctive and peculiar. However, in recent years, the creativity and innovation Barça’s midfield brought is simply disintegrating. While there are various reasons to this, the most prominent cause is the fact that the blaugranas are depending on two fairly defensive interiors. Arthur is certainly someone who has improved his attacking aspect, however, the Dutchman is evidently struggling to occupy his current role, considering it deprives him of the freedom he usually has at his disposal.
There is no denying that Busi is arguably one of the best players to orchestrate attacks. Him moving forward just to provide a helping hand has benefitted the cub various times this season already. Unfortunately, there’s one problem: De Jong becomes a hopeless case.
Frenkie, at Ajax, was a player who created the build ups, he worked from a defensive role and was the one who carried the ball to the interiors. Also, the moment he regained possession, he would generate a rapid attack. Basically, he fulfilled every task Sergio is currently handling. Unluckily, at the moment, he’s deprived of that liberty as he finds himself restricted and captivated as an interior. With him so clueless and lost in the center of the park, its only Arthur who can add that little sprinkle of creativity.
“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”
There was one stand out game for the Dutchman this season, which came against a brute Betis side. What was so remarkable about that particular performance was simply that De Jong understood what Busquets, infact the entire team, asked of him. He made a piercing run through a rigid Betis backline that allowed him to score, but what was so laudable about him was that he always looked for openings and never barged into anyone’s zones. He made darting runs forward and didn’t seem to collide with his Spanish partner in crime’s position too often. Such discipline and regulation on the field helped him thrive, but sharing a field with Busquets means those performances don’t come too often.
At the end of the day, its fair to assume that Busquets and De Jong playing together is not going to work for the club in the long term. Both individuals require certain privileges and it may not be wise to pair them up. In the Valverde era, Busquets’ role was quite unimportant as he sat incredibly deep, while Frenkie was the man who had the liberty to stamp his authority wherever he went. Although that still wasn’t enough to bring the best out of De Jong, with Setién, he’s even more confined and constricted since Busquets is given more authority.
While De Jong hasn’t necessarily been bad, he has failed to had the impact he had at Ajax | Photo by Alex Caparros via Getty Images
At this very moment, many would prefer to choose Busquets to be the regular pivot. He’s experienced, more reliable at the back and also, Quique seems to have a sweet spot for him. Even so, there is a way Frenkie can be somewhat more influential on the pitch. What the club must do is start natural wingers such as Fati or Braithwaite so that there is more flexibility and freedom in midfield. Congesting the center of the park will only work when there is the width on the flanks; this will automatically allow De Jong to be able to break the lines and play more naturally. Spectator have seen countless times that Fati operating on the left makes the former Ajax youngster a lot more comfortable on the field. Setién’s narrow 4–4–2 formation proved to be costly in the Clásico and, woefully, it seemed to affect De Jong the most. He simply lurked around the opponent’s box cluelessly, looking like nothing but a lost soul.
Despite playing in a post that seems quite unfamiliar, the 22-year-old has actually done a reasonable job. He’s still one of the best midfielders in the world and has the second most deep progressions after Messi. Of course, by no means does an advanced position bring the best out of Frenkie, however, it’s impressive to see his ability to adapt to foreign surroundings. Nonetheless, if the club truly intends to make the most of this prodigy’s talents, he must gradually replace the veteran currently occupying the single-pivot position. With De Jong’s energetic pair of feet and defensive superiority, he will undoubtedly surpass his mentor in due time. For now, given Setién’s limited options, featuring both these players together is possible, but it should only be a temporary solution for this transitional phase.
Riqui Puig will fight for his place, but the message sent with him is discouraging
While Ronald Koeman has other options in mind, Riqui Puig has decided to stay at Barcelona for another year. Still, the message sent by the club and coach is disappointing for the youngsters.
The thing about the circus is that it never ceases to surprise you. You barely have time to reflect on what you have seen before the next bizarre and astonishing thing is demanding your attention. And that’s exactly how it feels at Barcelona at the moment.
Although the morality of both have come into question in recent years, it is the succession of absurd events which Barcelona appears determined to mimic. Barely had the dust settled on a historic motion of no confidence against the board, plunging the entire direction of the club into doubt again, when journalist Gerard Romero of RAC1 reported that Ronald Koeman had told Riqui Puig that he should look for an exit. On rolled the circus.
Twitter meltdowns have become something of a specialty subject for culés in recent years and this was the latest episode – yet this time the journalists seemed almost unanimous in their distaste too. An overreaction? Even prospective presidential candidate Víctor Font felt compelled to react to the news – “another example of why it is imperative this club has a new project as soon as possible”. The consistency of opinion indicates it is not.
Koeman would later water down his own words claiming that he suggested thee young Riqui Puig seek a loan, rather than leave outright. “He has a future here” caveated the Dutchman, but not an immediate one apparently. Twitter reaction, press criticism and the words of an opposition candidate are all predisposed to condemn an under-pressure board and manager. Yet this decision is so baffling that even the most single-minded Grupo Godó journalist would struggle to defend it. To discard Barcelona’s brightest prospect, alongside Ansu Fati, just makes no sense.
“It’s not true that [Riqui Puig] is not in our plans. I spoke to him yesterday. I speak to the young players – they have to play. They can’t not be playing. Him, [Carles] Aleñá, Pedri…I have told them that it’s difficult for them and there’s lots of competition. Nothing more. I have told [Riqui Puig] that he has a future here, but it depends on the player. I would recommend that he went out on loan. At 20 years of age, the young players have to play. They can’t get stuck for a period of time”Ronald Koeman, after leaving Riqui Puig out of the squad for Saturday’s Trofeu Joan Gamper against elche
Of course, Koeman is right. The competition in his positions will be ferocious this season. In a squad which has so often found itself on its knees by April, handicapped by a lack of depth, Koeman has an abundance of midfielders. The 4–2–3–1 formation appears non-negotiable in an attempt to extract the best of Frenkie de Jong. Miralem Pjanić, Sergio Busquets, Sergi Roberto and Carles Aleñá will compete for the place alongside him. The mediapunta contest further ahead includes Barcelona’s most expensive player ever, their third most expensive player ever and one or two more.
On what basis Koeman is so certain that Puig wouldn’t even come second in either of these contests demands some explanation. Despite Puig’s smooth performance in the first friendly against Gimnàstic de Tarragona alongside De Jong. Despite him playing the mediapunta role so successfully against Atlético de Madrid last season.
Koeman’s great virtue was supposed to be that he would impose a meritocracy once more, that reputations were no longer important. Yet he appears to be continuing the recent Barcelona tradition of distrusting its own academy products. Following a policy which would have left football without its current best right-back, Trent Alexander-Arnold, or Koeman’s own favourite jewel, De Jong.
Riqui Puig brings virtues that are sorely lacking in this squad too, which was evident in the improvements last season whenever he played. Hunger, aggression, mobility and tempo – an obsessive desire for a hulking physical presence in midfield makes sense to a degree, yet nobody has demonstrated these qualities more than the minute man from Matadepera. For a club that so recently said goodbye to Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta, to doubt him due to his supposed lack of defensive capabilities bends the mind beyond comprehension. It also ignores the fact that what he does on it, he does better than anyone else.
It wasn’t just that he looked at home in the first team when called upon, he stood out. His manipulation of the ball and the opposition in tandem suddenly changed the rhythm of games for Barcelona, the increase in speed also parallel to the increase in threat. Because of his supreme understanding of space, teammates began making runs again and, consequently, the pitch increased in size as Barcelona were once again capable of using all of it.
Aggression isn’t purely a defensive trait either. The blaugrana squad is one of the most experienced in Europe but also one of the most risk-averse. Scared of their own weaknesses off the ball, as a general rule, only Lionel Messi attempted dangerous passes last season. The result was that Barcelona were far less dangerous for the opposition too. What Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati brought last season was a fundamental belief in themselves as footballers rather than just aides to Messi, taking on responsibilities neglected by their seniors time and again.
Riqui Puig has impressed whenever given the chance | Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce via Getty Images
Last season the young midfielder was held up as a sign of all that was wrong at the club. Virtuoso performances for the B-team were ignored in favour of a labouring midfield by Ernesto Valverde. The excuse for his omission was that he was untested at that level. Quique Setién did facilitate his introduction into the first team and duly employed him to great effect in the final stages of the season. Finally, it appeared he had broken the glass ceiling, he had definitively shown his value to the first team.
This made the non-selection of Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati in the Champions League, where Barcelona seemingly had little to lose, so maddening for fans. Whatever they did have to lose, they lost all the same against Bayern Munich. Any excuse for not starting Riqui Puig or Ansu Fati was obliterated that night – and yet Koeman, without any tangible reason, has decided to trust seven or eight others but not Barcelona’s best midfielder after lockdown.
It’s true that positionally the 4–2–3–1 doesn’t lend itself as kindly to Puig, but this argument has not been presented about others, who equally haven’t played in it before.
Beyond what Barcelona would miss on the pitch though, what makes Koeman’s decision so fundamentally problematic is what it signals off it. Barcelona’s largest problem has never been the lack of quality players – far less talented sides have achieved far more. The quintessential change that Koeman needed to make was a cultural one. By loaning Riqui Puig out, this would only pick up from where Valverde and Setién left off, compromising the team in order to select the senior players.
One of the few reasons for optimism in a dejected Can Barça this season was Riqui Puig. Firmly extinguished by Koeman when it seemed there could be no doubt he would feature heavily, if not start. On the pitch, Puig is one of Barcelona’s best midfielders based on last campaign’s evidence. Symbolically, he is the face of the rejuvenation that Barcelona desperately need, in terms of style and profile. It is worth asking the question: if a Barcelona manager that can’t trust Riqui Puig right now, should they be trusted with the Barcelona job?