What is Frenkie de Jong?

Everyone knows that Frenkie de Jong is a once-in-a-generation talent if he plays the right role. It’s just that no one is sure of the role of this.

Eric Ten Hag brought de Jong to Ajax’s first team from the academy ranks as a heartthrob, then turned him into a free defensive midfielder.

in BarcelonaErnesto Valverde tried to be Sergio Busquets’ heir before deciding that he was more than Ivan Rakitic in midfield.

When Ronald Koeman took charge at Camp Nou, he said it was clear De Jong needed to play in a dual hub, as he used it with Holland The national team, only to end up playing him practically as a second striker for Barcelona.

Xavi, his last Barcelona coach, tried all of the above, but 25-year-old De Jong doesn’t even have a surefire place in his squad.

This was not the case for the player who made breathless comparisons Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff.

People don’t talk about you that way unless you’re different from the others on the court. But there’s a good difference, coaches take turns on their best players and come up with new tactics to match your genius, and then there’s…the other kind.

Here’s how De Jong differs, in one simple statistic: He takes his time at the ball.

Of the 156 midfield players who have had at least 250 assists for one club in the last five full seasons of the league. Champions LeagueDe Jong has the longest average time before his next post (3.0 seconds in Ajax). He is also in third place (2.9 seconds with Barcelona).

Go ahead, read it all again. Mix a drink yourself and put your feet up – De Jong will still have the ball when you’re ready to move on.

This is not necessarily good or bad. Some of the best midfielders in the world leisurely possession of the ball, like Manchester‘s Bernard Silva (2.9 seconds) or Joshua Kimmich of Bayern Munich (2.8 seconds). Others, like his Barcelona teammate Busquets (2.2), are keeping up his lead.

But even if a stopwatch doesn’t measure quality, it can pick up on something about style.

Koeman, who knows De Jong and everyone else after coaching him with Holland and Barcelona, ​​once said that patience is the most extraordinary patience in his country: “In many situations, he has the ability to postpone a decision when it is in his possession, and then to give a pass from which Everyone thinks, “Hell, yeah. Excellent thinking – that’s how simple it is.

One of the reasons footballers spend more time on the ball, of course, is that the other team would like to take it away from them. If you’re the type of player who likes to “delay a decision,” you have three primary options: you can play in the part of the field where the defense isn’t chasing you, you can beat their pressure, or you can run away from it. De Jong does all three.

Let’s start by locating it.

Since it is difficult to get to space and time in the middle of an opponent’s defensive block, a player who wants more of it will move deep or wide – or, in De Jong’s case, both. He likes to start playing between his team’s central defender and the left back, as he can receive the ball in the void and face play.

It’s a good spot for him – De Jong says he’s at his best “as the first player to receive the ball from defense and link up in attack”.

Dropping into a position outside the center back makes it easier to collect the ball from your defensive line, and the natural rotation that kicks off his movement – the wing left back to make room for him, and the winger in the midfield area where De Jong used to be – helps to jostle the defense, creating His lanes to play forward.

Opponents need a plan to defend this rotation. If a player who usually watches De Jong in midfield follows him deeper, that leaves a gaping hole in the center of his defence. If another defender makes the substitution to fight it, he frees up a close pass option. And if they don’t sort everything quickly and get their angles right, De Jong gets time on the ball to do his work.

Space is great if you can find it, but sometimes you have to buy time on the ball the hard way – by beating a man. De Jong loves to do it too. “You can’t put him under stress,” Tin Hag said. “This is a great gift.”

Lots of Barcelona midfielders have the ability to move around to escape the pressure. Busquets likes to show the ball to the opponent and then pull it back, round enough to make the attacker miss. When Xavi played, he would lure a defender around one side of him and then roll in a circle with the ball sticking to his comb, like a matador wrestler sweeping through a mantle.

De Jong’s favorite movement is basically the opposite of Xavi’s Pelobina movement. He will receive the ball as if he is about to turn to his left, the more natural direction his pass is to his right foot. Then, when his pen cheats on that side, he jumps over the ball and spins to his right instead, using the outside of his right shoe.

Although the idea is similar to the old role of his current boss, De Jong’s inside-out mechanics lead to a different result. Xavi was finishing his slow and smooth circuit ready to pass it on to his already chosen teammate. De Jong’s jump ends with him hitting the ball forward with the outside of his foot. His body was shaped to dribble, not scroll.

Which brings us to the third and final way to buy yourself time on the ball: just run away from people.

According to FBref data, De Jong carried the ball 4.8 yards for every pass he made last season, which puts him in the 83rd percent (top 17 percent) of all midfielders and defenders in Europe’s top five leagues. If you only count the yardage carried per pass, it will be in the 94 . percentile. He’s a wanderer, and an adventurer,” said Tin Hag. “He’s always on the move, like a shark.”

When he starts, De Jong is a straight-line runner who uses only his right foot to dribble. Deception in his body – the way he alters his weight to convince you he’s about to cut, the way he speeds up and slows down almost imperceptibly to make attackers miss. Ignores call like NFL Run backwards and dance on outstretched legs like a member of the Royal Ballet.

Watch how he uses his body and acceleration to avoid potential attackers in this run Wales in June…

Note how he did not fire the ball until the Welsh right-back cuts into the goal in an attempt to stop his run, opening a passing lane for the free man on the wing. “He’s among the best at pinning and splitting,” Xavi said, using a Spanish term to get a defender to commit to the ball to free his teammate.

That’s pretty much the deal with De Jong. He will try everything – spinning, possession, long dump – to postpone the decision when you are in his possession. He will move the ball forward, engage defenders, and find an open teammate. His dribbling across midfield will confuse the opposition in a way that few players can do. This is what makes it different.

Conveniently enough, he does all of these things best in one position – as a defensive midfielder. Why doesn’t he play there often?

The short answer is that the best for De Jong may not be the best for his team.

Take a look at another clip from the Napoli match in February, we showed you what was previously captured – the first leg in European League A playoff in the playoffs when Busquets’ place at the base midfield began at 4-3-3.

Barcelona wins the ball into the midfield and starts building it. Instead of staying in the center of the Napoli attacking center, De Jong drops just outside the defense, where he is redundant, and holds the ball in front of his central defender for four seconds before dripping back into the midfield after deciding not to be there. pass it on.

By the time he picks a pass, roughly seven seconds after receiving the ball, he’s in the middle of a crowd of defenders with no good options.

Yes, De Jong has broken the Napoli lines with his solo run, but his team is in disarray too – others react to his dribbling quickly.

Compare that with a similar situation later in the same half of that 1-1 draw at Camp Nou, after Busquets replaced the Dutchman 25 minutes from time, shortly after Barcelona equalized.

Instead of dropping to the ball, Busquets backs off and waits for the central defenders to break through Napoli’s pressure. When he receives a space in the half-turn, three of his teammates actually make autoplays, allowing him to pick Jordi Alba’s streak without having to search for him.

Xavi was not shy about pointing out De Jong’s struggles with positional play.

“Franke absorbs a lot of tactical concepts that he never understood before,” he said in February, after being brought back into the central midfield in the second leg of the Napoli match (Barcelona won 4-2 in Italy, de Jong scored). Their second target at night). “He’s learning how to be a free man in midfield.”

Four different Barcelona coaches tried De Jong as a defensive midfielder in his three seasons at the club, and the others ended up deciding against him.

Koeman took over in the summer of 2020 and insisted that his Dutch teammate needed to play on the left side of the double axis, as he did at Ajax and with his Dutch side. That experience only lasted half a season. “It’s the player himself who has changed,” Koeman said when he brought him back to the center of the field.

It’s true that De Jong found out a few things about himself in Catalonia. He is a talented runner who is off the ball and extends the lines Xavi’s new style 4-3-3 He finds shots close to the goal. His inconsistent defensive style, which covers a lot of ground but doesn’t win a lot of balls, does better in high pressure than half of it. Combine these traits with his footballing skills and you’ll have an advanced midfielder who is good, sometimes even great, even if he’s not. Special.

The only skill that made him special – that long, turbulent clockwork skill done from behind – wasn’t worth building a side around.

In fact, in the Champions League match, both Barcelona and Ajax are doing slightly worse Expected goal (xG) The difference between the following possessions when De Jong goes on a gradual load compared to when he doesn’t. This includes only movements in which he successfully moves the ball at least 25 percent of the distance remaining to the opponent’s goal. A less successful ball carry, losing the ball all the way, may pull the average down more to the red.

Perhaps blowing up both teams’ form but leaving a hole in your team’s midfield base isn’t always a great trade-off at the top of the modern game.

There is another number worth considering here.

FBref tracks something called “on-off,” which is the difference between a team’s performance when a player is on the field and when he’s not, measured by expected goals or objectives. This type of stats is more familiar to basketball or ice hockey fans, and there are Good reasons why it’s almost unsuccessful in football As in those sports. However, the results can sometimes be suggestive.

In De Jong’s case, what the on-off data suggests isn’t great. In his five full seasons in the league, between two countries and under five coaches, His team’s performance with him couldn’t have been better than without him.

season club Team minutes played on-off (targets) on off (xG)

2017-18

Ajax

51%

-0.30

2018-19

Ajax

82%

-0.47

2019-20

Barcelona

62%

-0.52

-0.13

2020-21

Barcelona

92%

-0.13

0.00

2021-22

Barcelona

72%

-0.36

-0.41

It didn’t shake fans’ belief that there’s a super player out there somewhere, just waiting to jump into the perfect position and dribble their way into the history books.

But while the right tactics may still unleash the kind of bent star that everyone thought De Jong would become, there is now several years of evidence that it isn’t all that easy to take on a role that makes the most of his extraordinary strengths while covering up his life. normal. Weak points.

Some top players spend their entire career looking for the right fit. And in the end, no matter how adept you are at buying time, it runs out.

(Main Graphic – Images: Getty Images / Design: Sam Richardson)