As Barcelona clinched a crucial win over Napoli in the Champions League round of 16, Frenkie de Jong stole the show with an immense performance at the Camp Nou.
Despite Barcelona being overly dependent on Lionel Messi’s miraculous efforts in midfield, against Napoli, there seemed to be a lack of strain on the Argentine as a fiery Frenkie de Jong took matters in his own hands, asserting the midfield area throughout the 90 minutes. The Dutchman’s charismatic performance arguably proved to be his best, and most impactful of the year so far.
Without a shadow of a doubt, this was the game that elevated De Jong to the next level, the game that highlighted De Jong isn’t just another temporary solution to Barcelona’s catastrophic midfield, but instead a long-term investment, one that is already paying the club dividends. The blonde, beaming boy from Ajax is not captivated by the big stage, and it is players like him that are truly going to help the club seize some much needed silverware as well as strengthen their long lost philosophy.
A key aspect evident in Frenkie’s gameplay was the liberation and freedom he had at his disposal. Whether it was building out plays from the back or simply lending his services upfield, De Jong ensured he was a part of every move in midfield. The authority he had was put to excellent use with his quick feet and imaginative personality allowing him to always keep the Napoli players on their tip toes. The young midfielder controlled the pace of the game, dominating almost every part of the pitch and marking his territory wherever he went.
Frenkie de Jong skipped past Napoli defenders with astounding ease | Photo by Lluís Gené / AFP via Getty Images
It was a joy seeing the De Jong fans were so used to watching at Ajax finally come to life as his participation on and off the ball was utterly unmatched. Due to his excellent anticipation of players, he was never fazed by pressure. Infact, he seemed to welcome it. As soon as Gli Azzurri would pounce on him, he would squirm his way through with the most delicate of touches. Witnessing the 23-year-old look so vibrant and effective in such a high-magnitude game was truly a relieving sight for the blaugranas, who, over the years, have been in desperate search for such expressive and elated midfielders.
Whilst it was an undeniably game-changing performance, the number 21 was unfortunate to have been robbed off a beautifully executed assist in the closing stages of the first half, where he sent a terrific long ball in the opposition box, spotting an open Lionel Messi, who managed to chest it down and beat David Ospina in goal. Woefully, a controversial call from VAR claimed that Leo had contact with his arm, which ruled out an incredibly well deserved goal contribution for De Jong. Nevertheless, his ability to pinpoint the number 10 in such a fruitful position exhibited that even in terms of his vision, he was a cut above everyone else, including his own teammates.
Take the ball, pass the ball, take the ball, pass the ball; with his head spinning like clockwork, he fulfilled the ideals of a modern midfielder, injecting this sudden surge of energy and desire in midfield. The upcoming star proved that he’s the prototype Barcelona midfielder and with ample time, abundant faith and sufficient opportunities, he’s destined to reach the stars one day.
Although fans will be anxious to see Frenkie continue playing at such a high level, only time will tell if Sergio Busquets’ addition will seem to hinder the former Ajax man’s performances once he’s back from suspension. It’s a no brainer that, while he is more than capable of adjusting as an interior, Busquets’ involvement on the field often means that he is obliged to take unnatural roles on the field. It will be a huge test for Quique Setién to incorporate the two virtuosos in midfield, without hampering any of their performances. As long as De Jong doesn’t lose the jurisdiction to situate himself according to his own preference, Barcelona could become definite favorites in the Champions League.
Detailed Analysis: Elche CF 0-2 FC Barcelona
Coming into this match, Barcelona were in good form statistically with only one loss and two draws in the last 12 games. Elche, a team with a sub-par record to say the least against Barcelona, had only two wins in the last 10 games. Barcelona were the favourites, but despite this, the performance wasn’t without hiccups for the Catalans.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona lined up in a 4-3-3 as expected. The game plan remained the same as always; maintaining possession, attacking consistently, and playing a game that emphasized passing and hence, bringing out the best in a team that was technically much superior to the opposition was the philosophy. The full-backs were key to this. Jordi Alba and Oscar Mingueza would regularly move up the field.
To facilitate this, Sergio Busquets would stay back on the attack, and a very high defensive line was employed. The wingers would stay wide, with Antoine Griezmann down the middle. The Frenchman would be seen dropping back to even out the numbers in midfield, while linking-up the play.
When building up, Busquets would often drop back to receive the ball. Considering Elche’s system, playing centrally was a problem. Hence, the ball would often be passed to the wings. The alternative included a staggering of midfield. Staggering is especially effective when the players are marked very tightly by the opposition.
Here, we have an example of the same. As the ball is with Samuel Umtiti, the Elche midfielder would appropriately step forward and prevent the centre-back from progressing with the ball. This would create a small window of opportunity when another midfielder would be moving to mark Pedri, seen in the circle on the far side, and space would be formed between the defensive lines. Frenkie De Jong is closer to Busquets as we see, which complemented his dynamic ball-progression. However, both interiors would regularly try to get into the box as seen in the 4-3-3 employed by Koeman this season, which led to both of Barcelona’s goals.
Jorge Almiron’s Elche side lined up in a 4-5-1. Their aim was to defend with organization, prevent Barcelona from finding space centrally, and attack through quick combinations and long-balls. The four-man defence was the core of Elche’s setup. As we see in the image below, the team was in a well defined 4-5-1. Lucas Boye, the sole striker, would look to press Barcelona’s defenders depending on who had the ball. However, with a major numerical superiority in the build-up phase, the Catalans had few problems getting the ball to midfield.
Another aspect of the team that we can see from the image above is the structure of the midfield line. Victor Rodriguez and Ivan Marcone are man-marking Frenkie De Jong and Sergio Busquets here. The middle-three of the five midfielders had an important job. Depending on Barcelona’s players, they would have to change the player they were marking while making sure not to give space through central areas.
When building up from the back, Elche would have one player very close to the goalkeeper. The central-defenders would stay in the box with the full-backs occupying the field higher up as the image below shows us. The midfield would completely split during this phase. Firstly, Marcone would drop back into defence. Secondly, the wide-midfielders, Emiliano Rigoni and Josan would move further up the field and look to occupy Barcelona’s full-backs. Raul Guti and Victor Rodriguez would be the two players remaining in midfield as we see here.
Almiron’s side should theoretically have done much better in progressing the ball. Once the ball was launched over to the full-backs, they would form triangles on either side with the wide-midfielders up the field, and the central midfielders laterally. The problem was of technical quality. Many times, the intention behind the combinational play was admirable, but the execution would go haywire.
When Elche had the ball, Barcelona would immediately counter-press. Due to this, there were times when Elche lost the ball in Barcelona’s half with many players committed forward. Following this, Barcelona would find a lot of space to progress. As we see in the image below, Barcelona have just won possession in their own half. Elche have five players in the opposition’s half, and Barcelona have five, including Busquets, ready to attack. This was a recurring theme.
The problem with this was Elche’s full-backs failing to fall back in time. As we can see, Ousmane Dembele is completely free to make a run behind the defence. Though organized when without the ball, Elche’s defensive line was chaotic when caught on the counter. This led to Barcelona getting many chances on the counter. However, a combination of individual errors from Barcelona’s players and Elche’s willingness to absorb pressure, the Catalans lacked the final, decisive pass.
In the image below, we see another important aspect of Elche’s game plan. They would always look to force Barcelona wide and attempt nullifying the threat. Forcing a technically astute side to play down the wings can often be a good way to cope with them, but Elche failed to be solid enough in defence as both the goals showed.
Barcelona look to be finding their rhythm, after a slow start to the season. This victory was a step in the right direction for the Catalans, while Miguel Almiron’s side was a model example of a team’s technical limitations hindering the tactics. Elche have much work to do as this matchup clearly reinforced. However, this matchup could have easily gone the other way if not for a great save by Ter Stegen to keep Barcelona 0-1 up. Either way, an important three points, and a crucial first goal for Riqui Puig.
The Blaugrana are on their way to becoming greater than the sum of their parts but are yet to prove themselves against stronger opposition.