Perhaps the most profound negative of playing in Barcelona is that regardless of one’s age, experience or origin, they are, inevitably, expected to perform at or near the levels exemplified by Xavi Hernandez or Andres Iniesta. More often than not, these expectations are met with nothing more than abject disappointment as they are just too unrealistic for the simple fact that players of their quality and calibre are few and far between.
Enter Frenkie de Jong, a 23-year-old Dutch midfielder from Ajax of Amsterdam. Brought to Barcelona as one of Ernesto Valverde’s big-money signings, the youngster arrived following a remarkable debut season with the Dutch giants in the UEFA Champions League in a campaign that saw de Godenzonen win the hearts of millions with their tantalising brand of football.
He was at the core of the side and such was the quality that oozed from him that former Barcelona President José Maria Bartomeu went all the way to the Netherlands to get his signature in person. One and a half years into his tenure at the club, many have questioned the legitimacy of his signing, primarily as a result of the lack of proportionality between his transfer fee, his immense salary and his performances.
Finally, after the trials and tribulations, de Jong is revitalizing the hope in him that was nearly lost amongst Culés with his performances of late.
A tumultuous start to life as a Blaugrana
Players as gifted as Frenkie de Jong are hard to come by. Given Barcelona’s sheer desperation for a player of his profile, the €75 million the Catalans dished out — going up to €86 million in variables — was more than worth it. Barcelona were just one among a host of clubs that wanted his signature, but the desire to have him in Spain’s second-largest city was mutual between both him and the club.
To say that up until recently the Dutchman has been poor would be greatly disingenuous, however in the same light, saying he’s proven to be worth the potential €86 million would be so too.
Given the fact that he’s come from Ajax’ de Toekomst — the closest known academy to Barcelona in terms of quality — there are certain aspects of a midfielder’s game that are simply non-negotiable as long as one is in Barcelona’s Garnet and Blue.
These come in knowing whether or not one is adequately positioned to receive a pass by surveying their environment, evaluating the potential of them advancing with the ball, or the chance they might be dispossessed the second they receive it. In addition to this, it is imperative that the Barça midfielder know when best to play the pass, where and when best to dribble, whether or not these actions create positional superiorities, and this too in a matter of seconds within receiving the ball.
These are attributes he showed in abundance at Ajax, however, once at Barça, they seemingly dissipated. For most of his time as a Blaugrana, de Jong has shown complete ineptitude at hastening or at least maintaining a fast-paced tempo.
One of the biggest and most prevalent criticisms of the Dutchman comes in the fact that he takes far too many touches on the ball, with the problem coming in the fact that unlike with Lionel Messi, these touches have a tendency to slow down the play, breaking down attacking phases before they even begin.
There were, of course, some games where his magisterial dribbling aids Barça’s cause, however, for the most part, they came to nothing. His passes, while often made at an accuracy of upwards of 90%, were often fruitless. Far too many went sideways, and while this helped maintain possession, for the time being, it did next to nothing to advance the ball forward.
As can be seen, while the Dutchman is a man of abundant quality, his biggest flaws came in his inability to influence a game’s outcome. Players progress at different rates, with this going anywhere from a few weeks to a year. Up until recently, de Jong had shown next to none of this due to his slow wittedness on the ball and his poor decision making off it.
For most of the time, his most staunch supporters have blamed the flawed systems of each of his managers for his level of play; as they did and still very much do with Philippe Coutinho.
While it is true that having Ernesto Valverde use a man who was once a ball-playing centre-back as a wide-midfield out of convenience was far from beneficial, doing so takes the blame and criticism away from where it truly should be directed to, leaving de Jong no accountability for his actions. Frenkie de Jong looked like a shadow of his Ajax self, and there was no escaping it.
The new Frenkie
For the most part, there was an internal consensus among Culés that Frenkie de Jong was meant to be a central defensive midfielder either in a solitary or double pivot. After all, this was the role that got him into the public sphere, and with Ronald Koeman, a man who used this system for large parts of his managerial career, this shift in style was a heaven-sent for the 23-year-old.
Several months into the new system being implemented, de Jong inconsistency showed its face once more. He struggled to impact games significantly, only having occasional outings where his best level was shown. The vicious claims against Ronald Koeman, that it was his system, the one tailor-made for the Dutchman, and not de Jong himself that was to blame for his failures began to creep up.
The critics were correct about a problem in the system, however contrary to popular opinion, the best way to exploit the midfielder’s talents was not by tying him down to just the pivot role, but rather by giving him an unlimited range of motion on the pitch, not as a pivot, but rather as an interior. Ever since this subtle shift in the system, Koeman has consistently gotten the best out of his prodigy.
It stands to reason that a player who thrives with space does much better with a broader field of view than that which is provided to him in the central defensive midfield. His dribbling can also be exploited far better when he isn’t facing the existential dread that would come to haunt him would he lose the ball to an opponent when being pressed just in front of his own half of the pitch.
Playing in this more advanced role has taken him out of his comfort zone, however, doing so has come with none of the repercussions that presumably should have plagued him. Rather than look like a fish out of the water, de Jong is as graceful as a swan in a pond.
He suddenly shows a complete understanding of his role and all three expectations that come with it. His spatial interpretation and quick movements, coupled with his cut, and thrust passing — exemplified by his surgical through ball to Antoine Griezmann from near the halfway line against Granada — have drastically shifted the public opinion on him, and have done so for the better.
The Dutchman’s willingness to expand his horizon from just the pivot role to roles further up the pitch is further testament to his professionalism and his commitment to better himself. Success simply does not come on a silver platter, and he either had to change with the times, lest the times change without him, leaving him begging for minutes in a midfield that would otherwise have evolved past him.
Bayern Munich wants to sign Frenkie De Jong.— Barça Universal (@BarcaUniversal) January 7, 2021
Such is his improvement over the course of last month that he has caught Bayern Munich’s eye for the second time in as many years. They certainly have a far more alluring project than Barça’s, however, the Catalans simply cannot afford to let him leave.
If they were to concede to their Bavarian counterparts, with him just easing into his new find role, it would simply display a complete and utter lack of patience from the Barça board. Like Thiago Alcantara in 2013, this is a decision the Blaugrana could live to rue for an eternity.
It is imperative that they remember that even Xavi and Iniesta got into the prime of their respective careers in their late 20s, therefore giving up a potential world-beater could be detrimental to any of their plans of becoming a European superpower in the near future
Can the ban to Messi turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Barcelona?
Though the ban to Lionel Messi does seem terrifying news, a deeper thought suggests that it could be a blessing in disguise for Barcelona, opening up several avenues for Ronald Koeman to experiment.
Lionel Messi has made a name for breaking records for fun. Be it goals or assists or dribbles, he has the accolades decorating the walls of his quiet haven in Barcelona. On Sunday the Argentine found himself breaking yet another record, however, not one he would have relished too much.
The six-time Ballon d’Or award winner was sent off for the very first time in Barcelona’s famous Garnet and Blue. An unarguable offence involving a violent swing of the arm at Asier Villalibre was the incident that saw him earn the same. Consequently, a ban awarded will see Messi missing action in the upcoming two fixtures – namely against UE Cornella and Elche.
Though it does seem terrifying news, to begin with, a deeper thought suggests that it could indeed be a blessing in disguise for Ronald Koeman’s side. Temporarily so, though. Moreover, it could benefit both parties involved: the player and the team.
Sparing a scenario where he participates in Barcelona’s second-round fixture in the Copa del Rey, Leo will return to action once again against the side he received his marching orders against. The speculated return date is the 31st of January against Athletic Bilbao.
Having just come back from a muscle injury he picked up against Granada, the Argentine was far from his best in the Super Cup final. A red card was a miserable end to a painful night for him. It was evident that he was not ready to play. He pulled on through the night, almost till the very end before his patience caved in.
A fit and ready Lionel Messi is one of the key cogs in Barcelona’s engine. Rushing the captain back from injury would not be wise either for the team or the player. Messi, at 33, needs to be managed efficiently yet cautiously. This includes embracing the fact that regaining rhythm after injuries will require a longer window. Bearing that in mind, a forced two-game hiatus could be exactly what he requires to return raging.
However, the absence of the La Liga top scorer will put more burden on the shoulders of €100 million club players Antoine Greizmann and Ousmane Dembele. The French duo can see this as the perfect opportunity to step up. It is the perfect chance to prove why exactly they do have a bright future at the club. The talisman’s absence provides Griezmann with exactly the position he considers his own, and enable him to take up the baton of scoring. It will be the ideal stage for him to dictate the play between the lines and orchestrate the proceedings.
Meanwhile, for a certain Dembele, it almost guarantees successive starts. The youngster is just beginning to find his rhythm at Catalonia, and he will be looking forward to making up for the absence of his captain.
The games Leo is set to miss are relatively low-pressure on paper. This could now tempt Koeman to push in youngsters and experiment with the forward line. The Copa del Rey fixture against Cornella could well see young Alex Collado and Konrad get deserved minutes.
While Collado has constantly been superb for the B team, Konrad has been patient on the bench for many games. The La Masia graduates deserve a chance in the top flight, and Messi’s suspension could give them a chance. Either way, both have made it to the squad list for the Kings’ Cup fixture.
Similarly, the opening up of a spot on the right-wing, an infrequent occurrence, could see chances given to Fransisco Trincao. The youngster has hardly got a sniff of a start so far, and the opening up of a spot in his natural position could be what it takes for him to earn a start.
Moreover, there is a certain aspect of this on the team as a whole. Coming back after a defeat poses its own range of challenges. Nonetheless, bouncing back after a defeat in the final of an event requires suturing of a much deeper and painful wound. Having Leo on the side is always a reassurance to his teammates on the field. However, his absence following a major defeat will be a real test of the sides resilience.
An individual effort will not suffice in the coming games. With the captain on the sidelines and the hounds of the traumatizing defeat set loose on them, the players will have to be on their toes. It will be a test for the coach, and one that examines the drive in the players. What could that be in the eyes of a true fan, if not a blessing in disguise.
The team is in dire need for motivation, and for a sense of confidence. Victories in two games without their talisman can provide the biggest boost in morale for all the players alike. As for his return, Messi will be looking to come back with a bang against Bilbao next week once his ban calls curtains
It is no secret that the club-captain’s presence would lift the spirits and confidence of all personnel involved. However, the ban to Messi benefits multiple parties in the given situation, himself included. It also provides the chance for the likes of other players to step up and take responsibility on the pitch when, namely the likes of Ousmane Dembele and Antoine Griezmann, among others. Alternatively, an empty spot in the team might force Ronald Koeman’s hand to give minutes to Konrad de la Fuente, Fransisco Trincao, and even Alex Collado. Will the side be able to cross the line? One really hopes so.