Frenkie de Jong said it himself. It’s not difficult to connect the dots between him, his former manager Erik ten Hag, Manchester United’s dire need for a midfield and Barcelona’s many creditors. In theory, swapping Camp Nou for Old Trafford makes a lot of sense. “I understand that connection is being made,” De Jong admitted when asked about the speculation earlier this month while on international duty with the Netherlands. “This sum is not that difficult, that’s logical.”
In practice, actually closing a deal has proven to be a bit more difficult. United’s interest in De Jong has been public knowledge for more than a month. Discussions are ongoing but a compromise on the fee has yet to be found. While Barcelona are keen to squeeze out as much as they can to ease their debt woes, United won’t pay over the odds. The budget at Old Trafford is described as “substantial” – and can be supplemented by proceeds from player sales – but is far from limitless.
Midfield is United’s priority in the summer market. It’s an area of the pitch that needed attention early in the season and has since lost Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic in an end-of-contract exodus. Old Trafford officials are happy with the number of players leaving for free this summer, with an acknowledgment within the club that they have been guilty of carrying too large a squad in recent years and, as a result, the price on the field paid.
De Jong, meanwhile, has made no secret of his desire to stay at the Camp Nou if possible. If economic reality dictates he must be sold, the chance to work with Ten Hag again is attractive and could override any desire to play in the Champions League next season, but the 25-year-old claims this week that he’s signed to “the biggest club in the world” hinted where his head is at. United are keeping lines of communication open with other targets should no agreement be reached with Barcelona.
That’s a good thing, too, because even if a deal does go through, another complicating factor is that De Jong isn’t a silver bullet to United’s longstanding troubles in the middle of the park. Ten Hag’s first-choice midfield target is not the archetypal defender long needed at Old Trafford. He’s not a younger, more mobile and athletic version of Matic who would shield a defense that conceded more goals than Burnley last season.
De Jong would be a much closer replacement for Pogba with his ability to carry and distribute the ball further up. In modern parlance it is more like an “eight” than a “six”. And besides, with De Jong, like with Pogba, this distinction was not always very clear. One of the dangers of this deal for United is that after finally breaking away from a hugely talented player who is struggling to find the right role, they suddenly sign another.
At least De Jong knows what he’s good at. “I like to be the first player to get the ball off the defenders,” he explained while away with the Netherlands this month. Ever since Louis van Gaal returned for a third spell as Oranje manager, he has been widely used as Holland’s deepest midfielder. The Netherlands are unbeaten under Van Gaal for 13 games in which De Jong has played the vast majority of minutes. “I play differently than Barça and I think so [role] suits me better,” he claimed.
That could be due to the relatively small World Cup qualifying group assigned to the Netherlands, or the generally slower pace of international football. De Jong excelled in the group stage of last summer’s Euros before being eliminated in the last 16 under the guidance of Frank de Boer. In any case, his decent performances as a lone midfielder come from a smaller sample size than the three years at Barcelona, which were a whole different story.
In Catalonia, experiments with de Jong as the deepest member of midfield have generally backfired. His first two appearances in the role of Sergio Busquets ended in losses against Athletic Club and Granada. Another followed to Levante. The notion that de Jong was destined to become Busquets’ heir quickly lost traction when it became apparent that his strengths lay in penetrating rather than protecting space and making the most of possession make it instead of keeping it.
Compare De Jong to more defensive midfielders, especially when it comes to repelling counterattacks. In the last three seasons in La Liga, he has only successfully tackled a dribbler once every four games. Busquets, on the other hand, has done so more than once per game. Eduardo Camavinga has only been a Real Madrid player for a season but has surpassed even Busquets in that regard. Meanwhile, De Jong’s one-for-four matches Marcus Rashford.
Anyone expecting De Jong to single-handedly repair United’s midfield could be in for a surprise. Luckily, his former – and possibly future – manager already knows that. Ten Hag has experience building a team around De Jong’s rare skills during the year-and-a-half season at Ajax and he just isn’t a lone midfielder for him. “He leaves the middle of the field too often for that and if you don’t give him the freedom to go forward you’re not going to get the best out of his game,” Ten Hag said previously.
In fact, in the first few months together in Amsterdam, Ten Hag had picked up where his predecessor Marcel Keizer left off by playing de Jong at centre-back. From this position, he brought the ball out with fast, direct runs from behind, forcing opposing players to press and attack him. In doing so, they would be pulled away from his teammates, who would be left in space and able to attack. Long periods of possession suddenly became opportunities to counterattack.
De Jong’s reputation as a code-breaking new-age Franz Beckenbauer was growing, but Ten Hag wanted him higher up the field where that ability to carry the ball from deep could have maximum impact. He was a “wanderer” and “adventurer,” said his manager, not only in possession but also off it. “His quality is that he makes the strikers perform better… He’s always on the move like a shark. Often with the ball, but also without the ball. So if you put him on six, he’s gone too often,” he said football international after winning his first Eredivisie title.
Still, De Jong wanted to play deep and get the ball onto the pitch, beyond where the deepest midfielder would normally go. Ten Hag realized he needed protection to do this. Before the start of the first full 2018/19 season, he discarded the 4-3-3 system that was synonymous for both Ajax and Johan Cruyff and broke with tradition to get the best out of De Jong. “The qualities of the players determine the system, not the other way around,” he explained later. “At some point I decided to play with two ‘number six’ players on the pitch.”
De Jong was paired with the more conservative Lasse Schone, who could take some defensive responsibility while his midfield partner paced the aisles, passing players and moving in vertical lines rather than horizontal ones. “After I did that, you saw how much better it is [De Jong] gotten on the pitch and how much better he made the whole team and especially the attackers play,” said Ten Hag. The result was that 2018-19 reached the semi-finals of the Champions League and De Jong was named the tournament’s best midfielder.
However, it’s not a foolproof way to get the best out of a player who’s still waiting to rediscover his form this season. Ronald Koeman had some success pairing De Jong with Marten de Roon at international level but he quickly ran into trouble when he attempted a similar move early in his tenure at Barcelona. De Jong’s best form under Koeman came more as one of the central midfielders in a 4-3-3. It’s the same role he’s largely taken on under Xavi, only with more mixed results. If he leaves Barcelona, he will leave after not fully establishing himself or fulfilling his undoubted potential.
Ten Hag is perhaps the only manager who has successfully and consistently brought out the best in this immensely talented but enigmatic player. At least that bodes well for a reunion. Furthermore, United are currently as close as any top club to being a blank slate. Provided he’s backed by another new signing in midfield to complement his unique skills, De Jong needn’t awkwardly line up as a six with too much defensive responsibility or an eight that can’t be factored into the build-up game. Instead, the entire structure could be built around it.
When you put it that way, it sounds like the “logical” deal De Jong described. Barcelona must sell. wants to buy United. The player would rather stay but seems to be persuaded. And his future new manager would know how to get the best out of him. Still, a compromise is needed for talks between the two clubs to be brought to a successful conclusion and even then, history suggests De Jong is unlikely to solve United’s midfield problems alone.