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.
The numbers behind Frenkie de Jong’s revival at Barcelona
How has the shift away from a double pivot and into the right side of a midfield trio affected Frenkie de Jong’s performance and with it Barcelona’s?
Coming into this season, many believed the arrival of Ronald Koeman would help get the best out of Frenkie de Jong. In Koeman’s Dutch national side, de Jong had been one of the star performers, giving fans reason to be optimistic.
To open the campaign, Koeman implemented the 4-2-3-1 he had utilized with the Netherlands, which placed de Jong on the left side of a double pivot in midfield. While the former Ajax man played well, a more recent tactical shift away from the 4-2-3-1 has seemingly allowed him to reach new heights.
Starting with Barcelona’s away victory over Huesca, de Jong has played on the right side of a midfield three in the new midfield implemented by Koeman. In that more advanced role, the Dutchman’s freedom to roam forward has noticeably increased. He seems fresher, happier, and more impactful on the course of the match.
With that in mind, what do the numbers say about de Jong’s recent performances? What is he doing more of? What is he doing less of? How is this helping the side? Time to investigate.
Moving across and up
To start off, how about a little visualization of this role change? In theory, there should be significant differences between the positions de Jong was taking up earlier in the season compared to recent matches. Looking at where he played his passes from certainly backs this up.
It has been quite the shift. Not only has the Dutchman transitioned from the left half of the pitch to the right, but also higher up towards the opposition goal. In these last four La Liga games, de Jong has been operating much less in the defensive half of the pitch, plus one can see his territory stretching further to the attacking penalty area.
What about the areas de Jong has played his passes into?
Some more basic trends are visible. As the left pivot, one can see de Jong’s hot zone extending diagonally towards the left-wing. As the right interior, he seems to be passing to a more refined, central position, often in the right half-space.
An additional method that can highlight these differences is clustering de Jong’s actions. This allows us to see which passing patterns he repeated with the most frequency. For instance, his top clusters for passes played in the double pivot further reflect his tendency to play out to the left-wing.
That first cluster does show some activity higher up the pitch on the right, but outside of that, it is all passes played from the wide left or left-central positions. In comparison, de Jong’s pass clusters for the last four matches show him favouring shorter combinations from slightly to the right of the centre of the pitch.
The same can be done with the passes for which de Jong was on the receiving end of. Doing so provides further insight into his movement to get on the ball. Once again, the early season shows that left side dominance, and also just how far back de Jong was playing.
All of those lateral switches the Dutchman received in the defensive half, the short passes from the likes of Clément Lenglet, and the back passes from the attacking third all point to a deep-lying playmaker. Fast forward to his time as the right interior, and things look very different.
For one, we can see his passes received up and down the right flank. Additionally, there have not been as many deep passes received around the Barcelona box. Instead, de Jong has been getting the ball further into the attacking third, even in and around the penalty area frequently.
So, simple observation and data show the Dutch international phasing into a new role. Now that the basics have been established, though, the true insight has to be drawn from how this shift has made de Jong more productive. Given the new positions he is taking up, he must be contributing to different aspects of the game than he was before.
Adopting a new statistical profile
Moving to different areas and playing passes to different zones is only what is on the surface. To dive further into the Willem II academy product’s transformation, what matters most are the different actions he performs in these areas.
In order to investigate this, de Jong’s stats in matches on the right of the midfield three can be compared to his stats in the double pivot. To level the playing field between different metrics that occur at varying volumes, percent change will be utilized.
In this case, a positive change, or per cent increase, reflects an action he is performing with more frequency in the last four matches than in the opening sequence of the season. There are twelve key metrics which have increased by 10% or higher and five, which have more than doubled (over 100% increase).
Note: These stats are provided by Football Reference via StatsBomb. They have all been adjusted on a per 90 minutes scale.
Right off the bat, it is clear to see the increased freedom and dynamism in attacking areas. His non-penalty expected goals per 90 minutes have shot up dramatically by 256%. Furthermore, he is carrying the ball into the penalty area far more often. Getting much more involved in creating goals — goal-creating actions are the two offensive actions leading directly to a goal.
The increases are not just on the offensive end, too. The Dutch international has been a more active ball-winner in his new role, with tackles, interceptions, passes blocked, and successful pressures all up. More specifically, his tackles and pressures in the middle third of the pitch have increased, reflecting the fact that he is now able to step up further on the pitch when out of possession.
In short, de Jong has been more active in the attacking penalty area, supplying a spark to create chances or get on the end of them himself, while also taking advantage of the freedom to step out and press with more intensity.
On the other end of the spectrum, what has de Jong started to do less frequently?
The most significant decrease has been to his switches of play, or horizontal passes across the pitch. As a right-footed player, de Jong was much more suited to playing these switches from the left side of the pitch because he could cut inside and ping the ball across.
Elsewhere, the inverses of his increasing metrics can be seen. By staying in the middle third more often and moving up to join the attack, de Jong has to take up fewer responsibilities in the defensive third.
Furthermore, there have been drop-offs in several metrics associated with playing deeper. The Dutchman is getting involved in fewer aerial duels, fouling less, and playing fewer long balls, which was also reflected by those pass clusters.
It might be surprising to see that his passes into the penalty area have dropped. Still, given that his carries into the penalty area and his shooting numbers have increased, this reflects the fact that de Jong is getting into these advanced positions with the ball himself as opposed to playing it in.
With these metrics taken into account, one can appreciate what has truly made de Jong so effective recently. The new role has given him more freedom and room to roam, but he has taken great advantage of that with brave runs, incisive play, creativity, and ball-winning.
While the sample size is still small, this new role seems to be the best one for Frenkie de Jong going forward. Not only does the 4-3-3 allow the Dutchman to shift up and make the most use of his strengths, but it allows him to play into the team’s success as well.
With a player of de Jong’s calibre, it should not be surprising that what seems to be his best span of matches at the club so far has yielded four consecutive convincing wins. That is the type of impact he was brought in to make, and it is brilliant to see it unfold.
Of course, there are more difficult tests in the future for de Jong in his new role, but from what he has shown so far, there is a lot more to look forward to.