Why Frenkie de Jong is the midfield talisman Manchester United so desperately need

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Netherlands' Frenkie de Jong (left) and Wales' Matthew Smith battle for the ball during the Uefa Nations League match at the Cardiff City Stadium - David Davies/PA Wire
Netherlands' Frenkie de Jong (left) and Wales' Matthew Smith battle for the ball during the Uefa Nations League match at the Cardiff City Stadium - David Davies/PA Wire

When Frenkie de Jong received the ball in the 93rd minute of Holland’s recent meeting with Wales, he had nowhere to go and seemingly no team-mate available. Wales had just scored a late equaliser and the Cardiff City Stadium was buoyant, prompting the home players to push high up the pitch in search of a dramatic winner.

Surrounded by red shirts on the left touchline, deep within his own half, De Jong appeared to be in a spot of bother. But the beauty of the Dutchman’s game is that he finds solutions where obvious solutions do not exist, and within 14 seconds the ball was somehow in the back of the Welsh net.

De Jong did not score the goal, which was finished by Wout Weghorst. Nor did he register the assist, which came from Tyrell Malacia. But this winner was unquestionably the Barcelona midfielder’s doing, and those few seconds of invention served as the ultimate proof of why Erik ten Hag wants to bring the 25-year-old to Old Trafford with a deal edging closer.

As ever with De Jong, the move started with a look. A little glance over his shoulder, just before the ball arrived at his feet. A picture was formed in the midfielder’s mind and, from that moment on, Wales were in trouble. De Jong flicked the ball down the line, then received it back. From there he surged forward, past two defenders, and found Malacia on the left.

“That was the quality of Frenkie de Jong,” said Louis van Gaal, the former Manchester United manager who is back in charge of Holland for a third time. “That is why he is worth €112 million.”

Van Gaal’s €112m (£96m) figure seems to have come from a recent analysis by the CIES Football Observatory, a Swiss research group. In its estimation, De Jong is the seventh most valuable player in world football. The mooted fee for De Jong this summer, though, is just £69m.

The difference between De Jong’s theoretical value and the likely transfer fee is primarily a result of Barcelona’s financial difficulties, but it is also a reflection of the midfielder’s patchy form in Spain. He has never quite established himself as was expected at the Camp Nou, following his move from Ajax in 2019, and he will arrive at Old Trafford with plenty to prove, if a deal can be agreed.

It would be enormously unfair to describe De Jong as a failure at Barcelona, where he has played 140 games over three seasons. It is reasonable, however, to point out that he has not taken control of the Catalan club’s midfield as was predicted upon his arrival in Spain. De Jong was regarded as the heir to Sergio Busquets, but Busquets remains as important to Barcelona as ever.

The enduring brilliance of the World Cup-winner, now 33, has resulted in De Jong spending much of his Barcelona career in a more advanced midfield position. It is a subtle shift in positioning, from a “six” to an “eight” in modern parlance, but it is still significant.

At Ajax, De Jong established himself as one of the most exciting players in Europe when he operated in a deeper role, taking the ball in his own half and progressing it forward with his accurate passing and adventurous dribbling. But at Barcelona, especially since Xavi was appointed as manager, it is generally Busquets who starts the attacks.

This difference in positioning can be seen by the eye, and is also evident in the numbers. Last season De Jong touched the ball in his own half more than 14 times fewer per match than he did in his final season at Ajax, where he was a key figure in their run to the Champions League semi-final.

For Holland, De Jong plays in his preferred role - and he is generally exceptional. “Of course I play in a completely different way for the Dutch national team than for Barcelona,” he said earlier this month. “I think this suits me a lot better. I like when I am one of the first points of contact in midfield from the defence.”

One can safely assume that Ten Hag will not misuse De Jong as Barcelona have done. Firstly because there is no player of Busquets’ class in the United midfield, and secondly because it was Ten Hag who masterminded the system (a version of 4-2-3-1) in which De Jong excelled in Holland.

“His quality is that he makes the forwards perform better,” said Ten Hag of De Jong in 2019. “He is a wanderer, an adventurer. He is always on the move, like a shark. With the ball, but also without the ball. You need to give him freedom, otherwise you can’t get the best out of him.”

De Jong is such a thrilling prospect for United because he is, at his best, the perfect weapon against high-energy, high-pressing teams. United fans need no reminding of their struggles against Manchester City and Liverpool in recent seasons, and De Jong is the sort of player who could transform their performances against the better teams.

De Jong is a master of the art of “scanning”, constantly turning his head to form images in his mind. He is also a superb dribbler, and he has the courage to weave away from challenges in all areas of the pitch. Those two qualities make him a powerful asset against teams who are trying to press high in the opposition half. De Jong sees them coming, and he then has the skill and speed to turn away from them.

Since joining Barcelona in 2019, only three players in Europe’s top five leagues have been more effective when dribbling with the ball. De Jong has completed almost 80 per cent of his dribbles in that time. By comparison, Liverpool’s Thiago - a player with a similar style and approach - has completed 73 per cent of his dribbles in the same period.

“You can hardly put him under pressure,” said Ten Hag of De Jong during his time as Ajax manager. “That is such a great gift.”

Now, with agreement close between the two clubs, De Jong could be the ultimate gift to Ten Hag. A modern player for a modern coach, and a midfield talent who might just hold the key to the rebuild project at United.

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