It is glaringly obvious that Dutch midfielder Frenkie de Jong is one of the most exciting prospects in world soccer today. While I and most others writing about him now, after the hotly contested courtship that involved pretty much all the game’s biggest clubs finally came to a close when Barcelona announced yesterday that they’d won the Ajax man’s hand in marriage for a hefty €75 million (the ceremony is set for this coming summer), have watched at best a handful of the wunderkind’s matches, his talents are undeniable. Now that de Jong, Barcelona, and the rest of the soccer world know where de Jong is going to play starting next season, all that’s left is the small work of finding out who exactly he’s going to be when he gets there.
de Jong’s skillset at this point in time is pretty easy to summarize. He is a natural central midfielder who is serene when on the ball and careful in his management of it, has a deceptively effortless ability to carry the ball through lines of opposition, has the strength and athleticism to compete physically in defense and in attack, and has the intelligence and technical quality to play several positions down the spine of a team. This is a cool video breakdown of de Jong’s skills, of which it is obvious from the first minute that he has in abundance:
At just 21 years old, with so much room still to grow and having already become an object of obsession for clubs like Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain, and Manchester City, it’s clear the people who know things are willing to bet enormous sums on his future stardom. But what that stardom will ultimately look like is anyone’s guess.
For as copious and versatile as de Jong’s talents are, it’s still not evident which precise area of the pitch is the best place to use all of those gifts of his. His remarkable versatility—keep in mind, he broke onto the scene a season ago playing primarily as a central defender who threatened to revolutionize the way that position was played with his outrageous dribbling from deep—is at once his biggest strength and the largest source of uncertainty. While de Jong already has an ideal position on the pitch—in central midfield—he is a player without an ideal role at the moment. A helpful way to think about midfield roles in the modern, possession-dominating game in which he has found himself already at Ajax and will continue playing in at Barcelona is to think of the three roles of the iconic midfield triumvirate of our time: Barça’s Sergio Busquets-Xavi-Andrés Iniesta trio.
It feels safe to say that the one thing de Jong decidedly isn’t is an Iniesta. Iniesta was a conjurer of magic, a weaver of dreamlike runs and passes, an attacking midfielder adept at finding space between the lines where there was none and keeping hold of the ball once that space had all but completely disappeared long enough to sneak a little pass out to a teammate in a more advantageous position. He didn’t score much, and he didn’t assist much either, but his unique genius for facilitating others’ efforts to create and score with his preposterous dribbling ability and his composure on the ball made him one of the best and most important players in the best team ever.
None of that is de Jong’s game. Sure, the Dutchman is a great dribbler, but his jaunts more often come from deeper areas of the pitch, where he can beat one man with a turn or a touch and then gallop into wide open spaces before encountering the next defender. He’s more about running with power than jinking with delicate touches. de Jong’s preference is to play behind the ball with his opponents in front of him, and has yet to demonstrate an aptitude for receiving and moving with the ball in condensed spaces, which is antithetical to the constant between-the-lines movement of an Iniesta-type midfielder. It’s maybe a little concerning that Barça spent €75 million on a new midfielder who doesn’t fit this role, since that is the one midfield spot they probably most need to fill, but that by itself doesn’t make the de Jong signing bad.
The Busquets role is the one de Jong would on paper appear most equipped to assume right away, but even then the fit isn’t perfect. Busquets is a player defined primarily by the speed with which he moves the ball. His biggest strength over the years has been his uncanny ability to stand deep in midfield and corral and circulate the ball instantly and accurately, often with just a single touch, no matter where the ball is coming at him from or where it needs to go or how many defenders are bearing down on him to prevent him from moving it along.
The Busquets role fits de Jong’s skillset in some ways but doesn’t in others. Playing as the deepest man in a midfield three could be good for the Dutchman, as it would allow him the time and space to collect the ball and decide what to do with it with the game in front of him, as is his preference. Plus, the real Busquets has been consistently bad for so long now—falling off not only with his knack for sneakily effective defending but also, even more troublingly, losing possession and looking nervy under pressure and mishitting simple passes in ways prime Busi never would’ve—that it’s starting to feel like Barça would be best served replacing him in the starting lineup sooner rather than later. However, de Jong is a player who likes to take a few touches before passing, whose game is more about luring opponents in and exploding past them than it is quickly pinging the ball around so that guys like Lionel Messi or Ousmane Dembélé can do the fancy work. For those reasons, he isn’t really a like-for-like replacement for Busquets. Still though, de Jong’s best bet for playing time right away is probably in slowly but surely eating into Busquets’s minutes here.
Where de Jong’s career holds the most promise and potential is as a Xavi-type controlling midfielder. Xavi famously was the brain of the Guardiola-era Barcelona teams that to this day still define the concept of excellence in the sport. He could make every kind of pass, knew which moment called for which one, knew where everyone on the pitch was at all times, could play as effectively when dropping deep near the center backs as when he found himself high up the pitch amongst the forwards, and at all times could turn like a pinwheel to buy himself time and space to play everywhere and do everything. Xavi was always the most important player in that famous Barça midfield, because his game conditioned everything that surrounded it. His absence has been felt the most, and finding someone good enough to replace him has been the most difficult task for Barcelona since he left.
One problem with forecasting de Jong as the new Xavi is that the Dutchman’s game at this point doesn’t quite match that role. It’s a little similar to the reasons why de Jong won’t be an Iniesta-type of midfielder: he just isn’t proven at all at playing under pressure and between the lines. Currently de Jong spends most of his time at Ajax as something akin to a Xavi, as the more reserved of two interior midfielders in front of a defensive mid, as the guy who plays the most passes in the team. And while de Jong does like to get forward, his touches in the final third come mostly from him dribbling his way up there rather than drifting high when off the ball and receiving and turning with the ball with his back to the goal. For those reasons, and because de Jong at this stage of his development isn’t a notably exceptional passer, it’s hard to imagine him donning the Blaugrana next season and immediately becoming the team’s metronome.
The other major reason why de Jong probably wasn’t signed to be Xavi’s heir, and why Barça’s decision to spend so much to bring him in is maybe a little questionable despite his talent and potential, is because the club seems to have already found a player who projects as their future Xavi: the Brazilian midfielder, Arthur. The 22-year-old Arthur is in his first season in Europe, but already he has wowed Barça faithful with his maturity, confidence, and ability to dominate the ball. Like de Jong, Arthur is a player whose natural tendency is to drop deep for the ball with the rest of the pitch in front of him and work from there. Unlike his soon-to-be teammate, though, Arthur has already shown glimpses of the kind of quick, incisive passing of varying distances crucial to the Barcelona style of play, the ability to play with the team’s greater organization in mind, the skill to withstand and bypass high-pressing defenses, and a control and turning ability to manage the ball when playing high in very little space. If you had to place a bet today on anyone becoming Barcelona’s next Xavi, the safer money would probably be on Arthur, even if the Brazilian himself has miles to go before filling the shoes of one of the best midfielders of all time.
In light of all this, where will Barcelona be able to squeeze de Jong into the team? The Busquets role, for the moment and likely for at least the start of next season, will be assumed by Busquets himself. Arthur is doing a good approximation of Xavi’s role, and because of his age and present performance, he has a strong claim on it for the foreseeable future. Can de Jong fit in alongside those two? Probably, but it doesn’t look to be a seamless fit, seeing as all three of those guys want to play pretty deep. Barcelona already have problems finding a midfielder willing and able to play well behind the opposition’s midfield line, and a Busi-Arthur-de Jong midfield looks even less skillset-diverse than the current version. (It’s worth mentioning that recent vintage Real Madrid have done exceptionally well with a midfield trio featuring two Xavi-like players in Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić, and that having Arthur and de Jong split Xavi duties in a timeshare is a perfectly fine and even good short-term solution as both players of these extremely young players develop.)
It is possible that Arthur could tweak his game some and use his dribbling, close control, and turning ability to be the between-the-lines guy, but that’s projecting a pretty big change on a player who already looks so great in his current role. Frenkie is young and unformed enough to at least in theory one day develop the skills needed to play a little more advanced, but that too feels like a little bit of a stretch. And while Busquets has been pretty bad for going on a year now, it’s still hard to imagine a manager completely benching a player so venerated by his teammates and the fans, one so synonymous with the club and its style of play, in favor of a 21-year-old kid who just came to town.
If it is true, then, that de Jong and Arthur probably won’t play alongside one another as the two midfielders in front of a defensive mid, and that Busquets will presumably keep hold of his starting job for at least another season unless his performances drop off even further, then was it really wise to spend all that money on de Jong? Even in the more likely scenario that the club sees de Jong as Busi’s long-term replacement, is a defensive midfielder—even a potentially dominant one—worth €75 million, especially at a time when the need for a new Iniesta and a new Luis Suárez seem more pressing? And if you’re de Jong, is going to a team that may guide your career into the Busquets mold the right move when you could potentially be much more influential and important as a new Xavi?
In spite of all these concerns, it does feel like the marriage between Barcelona and de Jong should wind up being a happy one. As good as de Jong already is and as great as he could one day be in any number of specific roles, he’s still a very distinct kind of player that needs to play in a system that will prioritize the possession and passing game that best suits his skills. Barça will always play like Barça, and that is great news for de Jong. For Barcelona’s part, signing de Jong for so much money demonstrates an ironclad commitment to the possession and passing game, which has to be heartening for Barça fans who’ve agonized over the years as the team signed player after player whose ostensible fit with that style was questionable at best. If de Jong is to become the best possible version of himself, Barcelona are uniquely positioned to offer him the role, the playing style, and the complementary teammates that will best facilitate him doing so.
de Jong can’t, won’t, and shouldn’t play exactly like Xavi or Busquets or Iniesta. Greatness for him lies in being the best Frenkie de Jong he can be. But the work in finding out what exactly the best Frenkie de Jong looks like, and where that fits into the greater scheme of things at Barcelona, begins now.