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.
David Alaba is the ideal short-term replacement for Busquets at Barcelona
Barcelona’s 4-1 thrashing at the hands of Paris Saint-Germain served as a further reminder for a lesson they should have learned years ago. In yet another important game, the team failed to match their opponent’s quality and energy. The defence was unstable, the midfield overrun, and the attack non-threatening.
With so many key players nearing the end of their careers – at least at the highest level of world football – Barça must make the proper moves to replenish and reignite their squad. Left-back Jordi Alba, centre backs Clement Lenglet, Gerard Piqué, and defensive midfielder Sergio Busquets all featured in the humiliations against Bayern Munich and Liverpool, with three of them playing against Roma the year before (2018). If anything, this shows the club’s refusal and stubbornness to make the moves necessary for competing at the highest level.
These players – some of them club legends – still have a lot of quality and can help the team in various ways, however, there need to be clear replacements in line for the day they eventually leave. In particular, Barça need a new centre-back, a new left-back, a new striker, and crucially, a new central defensive mid. However, instead of going all out for three different players, there is one man who can serve as the perfect deputy in each role.
Presenting: David Alaba
After being with Bayern Münich for over a decade, David Alaba recently announced his intention to leave the club once his contract expires in the summer. He is set to be one of the most highly sought-after free agents, with clubs like Real Madrid, Chelsea, and Barcelona fighting to sign him. Presidential candidate Joan Laporta is reportedly a huge fan of the Austrian international and would want to sign him should he win the presidency.
Alaba has made a name for himself as one of the most versatile players in the world. He started his career as a left-back for Bayern, solidifying himself as one of the world’s best. When Pep Guardiola arrived in 2014, he took advantage of Alaba’s technical abilities and utilized him as an inverted full-back. Instead of darting down the flanks, he took up more central positions in the midfield.
Over the last two seasons, he has played the majority of his minutes at centre-back, helping lead Bayern to the treble and sextuple. With the Austrian national team, he has played all over the pitch but mainly in midfield.
His versatility would undoubtedly serve Barcelona well, being plugged into various positions that the team need, but more than that, he has all the attributes to make the number 6 position his own, at least temporarily.
In a 4-3-3 formation, the number 6 is the centre defensive midfielder. This player is the anchor of the team, the one responsible for breaking up offensive attacks, recycling possession, and dictating tempo. It is one of the most demanding positions on the pitch.
Sergio Busquets has filled that role for Barcelona for over the past decade and earned his name as one of the position’s best of all time, if not the best. The 32-year old has made 610 appearances for the Blaugrana, gracing the pitch with his composure, passing, and vision. Many clubs choose to have their defensive midfielder(s) fit the “destroyer” archetype, players who are extremely physical and aggressive with their tackles, but that was never Busquets’ forte. Instead, he dominated the defensive side of the game with smart interceptions and astute tackles.
Unfortunately, over the last two seasons, age has caught up to him and severely limited his physical attributes. His metronomic passing and vision are still elite, but his inability to close down opponents, track-back with pace and successfully press like he used to have all diminished. This was all too apparent against PSG, where he was consistently caught out of position and could not provide the backline with the proper cover.
Given the importance of his position, the fact that Barcelona have not yet lined up a replacement for him is beyond comprehension. There are no standouts in the youth academy or current squad that fit his profile (most fill other midfield roles), so naturally, Barça have to look elsewhere. Then again, replacing Sergio Busquets was never going to be an easy task.
A Temporary Fix?
One of Barça’s looming problems over the past few seasons has been the lack of a sporting project, one that acts as a blueprint for everything the club does. Countless players have been brought in to fill in squad deficiencies temporarily, and many more have failed to live up to expectations. While Alaba would admittedly be a temporary fix, there is no better alternative on the market or club to fill in Busquets’ role. He is the perfect fit for Barça in that role and others and will lube the transition into the new era with ease.
As aforementioned, Alaba has all the attributes necessary to be Barcelona’s next number 6. He would be 29 at the start of next season but could still offer a few seasons at a high level, at least until a long-term replacement is found.
Defensively, Alaba makes up for lack of brute tackling with a cerebral reading of the game and expert positioning. In this season’s Bundesliga, he is averaging 2.04 tackles plus interceptions per game. He would also bring much-needed energy and the physical attributes necessary to pressing and closing down opponents. This would do wonders for a Barça team who need to amp up their intensity.
When building up from the back, Alaba can naturally slot in between the two centre-backs, much like Busquets has throughout his career, providing cover for marauding full-backs and an outlet into midfield, whether through passes or ball carries.
Offensively, his passing, whether short or long, balls, composure, and vision would serve the team immensely well. His tactical intelligence would also see him fit right into the squad. Among the top five centre-backs in the Bundesliga, Alaba is in at least the 96th percentile (per 90 minutes) of various stats: passes into the final third (8.68), passes into the penalty area (1.10), progressive passes (6.59), progressive carries (7.21), and progressive carrying distance (225.21 yards).
These stats are extremely telling. He’s leagues ahead of most centre-backs in terms of ball-playing and is an elite distributor of the ball. That, paired with his on-the-ball ability and defensive acumen, make it perfect for him to move higher up the pitch and slot in at centre defensive mid.
At Barça, Alaba can form the base of a midfield trio with Frenkie de Jong and Pedri, with Sergio Busquets, Riqui Puig, and Illaix Moriba coming off the bench, to name a few. That trio’s potential combination of composure, vision, and quality on both sides of the ball would surely do wonders.
A Sinking Ship
The Catalans need a lot in order to get back to competing at the highest level. Holes on and off the pitch are growing larger by the day, and plugging them in with ill-informed transfers won’t help. On the other hand, if David Alaba is brought in with the clear intention of making him the starting defensive midfielder, even for only a few seasons, while slowly phasing Busquets out, the team would greatly benefit from it. Furthermore, his versatility could see him slot into a myriad of other positions if needed.
His salary demands are reportedly high, but the quality he would bring is unparalleled, especially given the scarcity of players Barça can target for the number 6 position. He is a player tailor-made for the Camp Nou. Additionally, if the Catalan giants lose heavy-earners like Philippe Coutinho, Samuel Umtiti, and maybe Antoine Griezmann/Ousmane Dembele, fitting the Austrian in will be far from complicated. Not to mention how much space Messi’s departure could open up.
With the right moves, this sinking ship can slowly but surely stay afloat and get back to ruling the high seas.