Frenkie de Jong himself said so. It’s not difficult to connect the dots between him, his former manager Erik ten Hag, Manchester United’s desperate need for a midfielder and Barcelona’s many creditors. In theory, swapping Camp Nou for Old Trafford makes a lot of sense. “I understand that this call was made,” admitted De Jong when asked about the speculation while on international service with the Netherlands earlier this month. “This sum is not that difficult, it is logical.”
In practice, reaching an agreement proved a little more difficult. United’s interest in De Jong has been public knowledge for more than a month. Negotiations are ongoing, but a compromise on the rate has yet to be found. While Barcelona are keen to extract as much as possible to alleviate their debt worries, United will not pay more than the odds. The budget at Old Trafford is described as “considerable” – and can be supplemented by revenue from player sales – but it is far from unlimited.
Midfield is United’s priority in the summer market. It is an area of the field that needed attention at the start of the season and has since lost Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic as part of an end-of-contract exodus. Old Trafford officials are comfortable with the number of players leaving for nothing this summer, with an admission within the club that they have been guilty of carrying too large a squad in recent years and have paid the price on the pitch as a result.
Meanwhile, De Jong has made no secret of his desire to stay at Camp Nou if possible. If economic reality demands he be sold, the chance to work with Ten Hag again attracts and could override any desire to play in next season’s Champions League, but the 25-year-old’s assertion this week that he “feels good” ” in the biggest club in the world” hinted where his head is. United are keeping the lines of communication open with other targets in case an agreement with Barcelona cannot be reached.
That’s good, as even if a deal is struck, another complicating factor is that De Jong isn’t a silver bullet for United’s longstanding mid-park problems. Ten Hag’s first-choice target in midfield is not the archetype of player that has long been needed at Old Trafford. He’s not a younger, more mobile, athletic version of Matic who would somehow protect a defense that conceded more goals than the relegated Burnley last season.
De Jong would be a much closer replacement for Pogba, with his ability to carry and distribute the ball further up the field. In modern parlance, it is more of an ‘eight’ than a ‘six’. What’s more, with De Jong, like Pogba, that distinction wasn’t always exactly clear. One of the dangers of this deal for United is that, having finally gotten rid of an extremely talented player who struggled to find the right role, they suddenly sign another one.
De Jong knows what he’s good at, at least. “I like being the first player to receive the ball from the defenders,” he declared this month while away from the Netherlands. Since Louis van Gaal returned for a third spell with the Oranje side, he has generally been highlighted as the Netherlands’ deepest midfielder. The Netherlands are unbeaten in 13 games under Van Gaal, in which De Jong played the vast majority of minutes. “I play differently than Barça and I think that [role] fits me better,” he said.
This could be due to the relatively simple World Cup qualifying group the Netherlands hosted or the generally slower pace of international football. De Jong excelled in the group stage of last summer’s Euro Cup, before a knockout in the round of 16 under the direction of Frank de Boer. Either way, his decent displays as a lone midfielder are drawn from a smaller sample than his three years at Barcelona, which have been a different story altogether.
In Catalonia, experiences with De Jong as the deepest midfielder have often backfired. His first two appearances in the role of Sergio Busquets ended in defeats to Athletic Club and Granada. Another went to the Levant. The notion that De Jong was destined to be Busquets’ heir quickly began to lose steam as it became apparent that his strengths lay in penetrating space rather than protecting it, and making the most of possession rather than keeping it. .
Compare De Jong to more defensive midfielders, particularly when stopping counterattacks. In the last three seasons in La Liga, he has successfully taken down a dribbler just once every four games. Busquets, on the other hand, has done this more than once in a game. Eduardo Camavinga has only been a Real Madrid player for one season, but he has even surpassed Busquets in that regard. Meanwhile, De Jong’s one in four is in line with Marcus Rashford.
Anyone expecting De Jong to fix United’s midfield on his own might be in for a surprise. Fortunately, your ex – and possibly future – manager already knows this. Ten Hag has experience building a team around De Jong’s rare abilities during their season and a half together at Ajax, and for him, he’s just not a lone midfielder. “He comes out of midfield too often for that, and if you don’t give him the freedom to move forward, he won’t be able to get the best out of his game,” Ten Hag said earlier.
During their first few months together in Amsterdam, Ten Hag had indeed picked up where his predecessor Marcel Keizer had left off by playing De Jong at centre-back. It was from this position that he brought the ball in from the back with quick, straight runs that forced opposing players to pressure him and engage. By doing so, they would be pushed away from their teammates, who would be left in space and able to attack. Long periods of possession suddenly turned into counterattack opportunities.
De Jong’s reputation as a new-age codebreaker, Franz Beckenbauer, grew, but Ten Hag wanted him to be at the front, where that ability to carry the back ball could have the most impact. He was a “wanderer” and “adventurer,” his manager said, not only in tenure but also outside of it. “His quality is that he makes forwards play better… He’s always on the move like a shark. With the ball many times, but also without the ball. So if you put him at six, he is absent very often,” he said. International Football after his first Eredivisie title win.
However, De Jong still wanted to play deep and take the ball to the field, beyond where the deeper midfielder would normally go. Ten Hag realized that to do this, he needed protection. Before the start of his first full season in charge in 2018-19, he abandoned the 4-3-3 system that was synonymous with Ajax and Johan Cruyff, breaking with tradition to get the best out of De Jong. “The qualities of the players determine the system, not the other way around,” he later explained. “Eventually I decided to play with two ‘number six’ players on the field.”
De Jong was paired with the more conservative Lasse Schone, who could take some of the defensive responsibility while his midfield partner was moving up through gears, passing players and moving in vertical rather than horizontal lines. “Once I did that, you saw how much better [De Jong] stayed on the field, and how he made the whole team play better and especially the forwards,” said Ten Hag. The result was that 2018-19 reached the semi-finals of the Champions League and De Jong was named the best midfielder of the tournament.
It’s not a surefire way to get the best out of a player who is still waiting to rediscover his form that season. Ronald Koeman had some success pairing De Jong with Marten de Roon at international level, but when he tried something similar early on in his reign at Barcelona, he quickly ran into trouble. De Jong’s best form under Koeman came more as one of the central midfielders in a 4-3-3 formation. That’s the same role he largely held under Xavi, only to more mixed results. If he leaves Barcelona, he will leave without fully establishing himself or realizing his unquestionable potential.
Ten Hag is perhaps the only coach who has successfully and consistently brought out the best in this immensely talented but enigmatic player. That at least bodes well for any meeting. What’s more, United are currently the closest any top club comes to being a blank slate. As long as he’s joined by another midfield signing that complements his unique abilities, De Jong won’t have to awkwardly fit in as a six with a lot of defensive responsibility, or an eight who can’t get involved in the build game. Instead, the entire structure could be built around it.
When you put it that way, it sounds like the “logical” agreement that De Jong described. Barcelona needs to sell. States want to buy. The player prefers to stay but, it seems, can be persuaded. And your potential new manager would know how to get the best out of him. However, compromise is needed for negotiations between the two clubs to end successfully, and even then, history suggests that De Jong is unlikely to solve United’s midfield problems alone.