“So take me with you,
Take me far away,
We’ll ride the wind across the sky
Spread your wings and you will see
You control your destiny”
– Whitesnake – Sailing Ships.
Frenkie de Jong’s possible transfer to Manchester United from FC Barcelona has been one of the sagas of the transfer window and supporters of the Red Devils have been getting inpatient in recent days, but things seem to be heading in the right direction for them as recent reports have suggested that both have finally agreed to a fee and structure of payments that could bring the Dutchman to Old Trafford.
Beyond the debates about the transfer fee and the club’s approach to the situation, making the former Ajax midfielder the priority at a time where the squad needs signings in a lot of positions, the most important question is: Who is Frenkie de Jong and what can he bring to the table? Why is new manager Erik ten Hag so eager to reconnect with his former pupil of his Ajax days? Let’s talk about it.
First and foremost, control
If there is an issue that has befallen United’s midfielder during most of the post-Ferguson era is the lack of control. Regardless of the managers and squad structure, the midfield, the area where football games are won, drawn and lost, has lacked this tenacity and calmness to keep hold of the ball in moments of sustained pressure and to build up attacks as well–it’s this lack of composure that has delivered in lots of games where teams take the ball away from United because are players in that area are ill-equipped to deal with the many different aspects of playing midfield.
Now, this is not a dig at current midfield choices such as Fred or Scott McTominay, but both have proven that they are not the best when it comes to keep possession and doing so in a productive manner while, on the other hand, they have shown their quality in big games, especially during the Ole Gunnar Solskjær years, where United gave away the ball and relied on fast transitions because they are that type of players. Bruno Fernandes is a high risk/high reward player and is at his best when playing close to the final third, so having him go back to central areas to get the ball is anathema to what he can offer. Donny van de Beek’s best attributes rely on off-the-ball movement and being close to the final third, so he isn’t the man for that either.
Enter Frenkie De Jong
United not only need numbers in a depleted midfield after the departures of Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic, but they also need something that recent players in those positions didn’t offer and the Dutchman is exactly that. Silky with the ball, exquisite technique, great passing range and an excellent ball-carrier, De Jong has all the attributes to play the possession-based football that Ten Hag loves so much (well, he has played that football with Ten Hag in the past, of course) and adds a whole different skillset to the squad.
Simply put, whether it was due to a lack of technique (Fred and McTominay), being irresponsible with the ball (Pogba) or not being at their best in those areas (Bruno and van de Beek), most United midfielders are either too passive with the ball or treat it like a bomb. De Jong doesn’t. He is calm with the ball and can receive it from the centre-backs and deliver it forward with his superb progressive passing–this is something that Paul Pogba, for example, wasn’t capable of learning in six years at United.
The best football teams in the world can control the midfield and keep hold of the ball in the most demanding games. Ten Hag knows that and wants his finest player to ever deliver at midfield for him and that is Frenkie De Jong.
Space awareness and versatility
Constant movement is one of the principles of Ten Hag’s teams (as seen in this recent training clip at Carrington). He likes his players to be able to switch positions and attack the space and this approach not only requires technique and a high football IQ, but also the capacity to play in a lot of different roles. In this particular topic, De Jong is a testament of Ten Hag’s methods and the young midfielder’s successes at Ajax and struggles at Barcelona stem from that.
Frenkie can play a lot of different roles in midfield and has done it for most of his career. Sure, his main role is as a central midfielder who can get the ball from the centre-backs and drive forward with progressive passing and carrying the ball, but he has also being able to be the deep-lying playmaker, sometimes a more box-to-box kind of midfielder at Barcelona and sometimes (although rarely) even as a number ten. This should not come off as a surprise when we consider that he broke through in Ajax’s senior team as a centre-back, so he has been able to adapt.
It’s no secret that the constant reports of Ten Hag viewing him as his most important signing suggests that he is going to be the main man at Old Trafford and this kind of space awareness and versatility allows him to move in different areas of the pitch and contribute to the team. The new United manager once referred to De Jong as “an adventurer” and that you can’t have him in a very strict role, which is something that he struggled with at Barcelona, often having to play second fiddle to Sergio Busquets, Gavi or Pedri.
At United he is going to have the kind of dominating role that he has enjoyed at Ajax and in the Netherlands and where he has looked at his best. And while the rigours of the Premier League could have an impact in his early performances, the reality is that De Jong can have at Old Trafford the kind of importance and influence that he never had at the Camp Nou.
Speaking of relevance.
Pressing has been one of the biggest trends in football in the last ten years or so. While it has always been a strategy in the post, going all the way back to the sixties, the reality is that pressing has gotten a lot more important and detailed in recent years and United midfielders have struggled mightily in that department in the post-Ferguson era.
Whether it was Pogba doing foolish tricks near the defence or Fred and McTominay being dispossessed or giving the ball away due to pressing, United’s only press-resistant midfielder in recent times has been an ageing Nemanja Matic and even him was prone to his fair share of mistakes when ran into the group.
This is probably one of the best qualities that De Jong and that he can offer to the team: he feels comfortable with the ball at his feet, has a great passing range, he can carry and drive the ball forward, has a great first touch and overall knows what to do when he has the opposition all over him. Physicality can be an issue in English football, but the former Ajax man has never been the strongest and usually has fared quite well in that department.
The point connects a bit with the control one and it is so important that United can construct a team that can handle the ball in many different scenarios. Having Frenkie De Jong as a central piece to the puzzle is a very good start.
Someone that can link-up defence and the attack
A football team playing well is like a car running smoothly: if every part does its job, everything should go down without issues. When it comes to United, this analogy has a problem, which involves that the midfield lacks the engine to make the car work.
The now infamous McFred pairing has always had a more destroyer approach to things and Bruno Fernandes always thrives in the final third, so there is a disconnect between the defense and the attack that hasn’t been fixed for ages now. Pogba was supposed to be one of the players meant to help solve that, but we all know what happened there.
As I have mentioned before in the article, De Jong has no problem being the link-up man and make the whole playing style flow through him. If he signs for United, he is going to be able to get the ball from the centre-backs without much issue and distribute it to the attacking players without much issue–that’s his role, that’s what he does and that is why Ten Hag wants him back again in his team.
Midfield is the most dynamic area of the pitch and that requires players that can contribute in the vast majority of said dynamics, which is something that the Dutchman offers in spades.
A player about to peak with a point to prove
Now, this isn’t much about what De Jong can bring to United, but more about a context that could prove to be beneficial for both parties.
One of the biggest concerns that United fans have regarding this deal is that Frenkie hasn’t been a huge success at Barcelona and a lot of people are asking themselves how a guy that failed to make a positive impact in a struggling team is going to help the Red Devils reach the next level. While there is nothing illogical about this reasoning, football fans usually simplify situations to black and white when there is a wide variety of grey to analyse.
De Jong was signed by a club that never had a clear plan to use him and he had to go through four different managers in three years, highlighting the club’s instability and the fact that the player never enjoyed a regular system and role to thrive in. As supporters of an equally unstable club, where young talent usually goes to die, this is a reality we should be very familiar with. Add to that the fact that Barcelona started to make greater emphasis on Gavi and Pedri, often forcing De Jong to play in roles that didn’t play to his strengths.
Having said all that, the Dutchman still enjoyed moments of great form at Barcelona and when he was on form, the team was great as well. The Catalans’ 4-0 win over Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu a few months ago was heralded as manager Xavi Hernandez’s biggest highlight of the season, but it often goes unnoticed that Frenkie was voted Man of the Match and his performance was definitely worthy of the recognition, so it’s not like he has been this monumental flop either.
But the fact that he was never given the keys to the castle, which was supposed to be the original plan when he was signed back in 2019, and that he was relegated to play second fiddle and now likely due to financial situations, could very well be a good thing for United as they could get a player eager to prove a point and show to his former team and the world that he still has a lot more to give.
It’s still not a done deal and we should wait and see what happens, but midfield has been a bane to United’s existence for a few years now and De Jong is a huge step in the right direction to fix that problem.