?On first viewing, Frenkie de Jong joining Barcelona from Ajax may not seem like a particularly brilliant piece of business from the Catalans.
They have spent £67.5m to bring the midfielder to Spain this summer. Hardly an astronomical fee by modern standards in football, but it is still a hefty sum of money for a 22-year-old with just seven international caps to his name. The fact that he has only scored six senior goals will also have raised a few eyebrows.
Yet there is something special about de Jong. We’ve established that he is not a goal-scoring midfielder, and he is not particularly quick or powerful on the ball. Instead, it is his speed of mind that sets him apart.
Ajax enjoyed a fine season last year, winning a domestic double and making the semi-finals of the Champions League. At the heart of their impressive displays was one man: de Jong. The Dutch international dictates the play from the base of the midfield, always providing himself as an option to pick the ball up from his defence so that he can start the side’s next move.
In case you missed his exploits with Ajax, de Jong’s full repertoire of skills were on show when the Netherlands dispatched England 3-1 in the Nations League semi-finals in June. The youngster grew more and more influential as the game went on, playing a pivotal role as his team overturned a half-time deficit to secure their place in the final.
105 – Frenkie de Jong recorded more passes (105), touches (128), tackles (5) & recoveries (13) than any other player during Netherlands v England. Clockwork. pic.twitter.com/YkEYZrGZBG
— OptaJohan (@OptaJohan) June 6, 2019
??Still not convinced? Well, let’s take a look at where Barcelona have struggled in recent years. Under Pep Guardiola, the team monopolised possession, with Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets dominating the midfield area. It was difficult for the opposition to get the ball back, let alone score a goal.
That is no longer the case though. Xavi and Iniesta have departed, and Busquets is now 31 and has seen his impact on the team wane in recent times.
Barcelona are now a team that relies on moments in matches, rather than building and sustaining pressure. They look to Lionel Messi
That was clear for all to see in last season’s Champions League semi-final tie against Liverpool. In the first leg, Suarez and Messi delivered, handing Barcelona a 3-0 advantage to take to Anfield. The game had been a nip-and-tuck affair, with the hosts unable to control proceedings for long periods, but Messi and Suarez papered over the cracks. They would not be able to do so again in the second leg.
Barcelona were completely outclassed in the return fixture as Liverpool
This is where de Jong will make his mark. Last season, he showed that there are not many players better at keeping the ball. His ability to float around the midfield, ensuring that he is available to give or receive the ball at any point is an attribute that will serve Barcelona well moving forwards.
Sometimes it may not seem that he is doing that much. Simple ten-yard passes can be taken for granted. Yet he is constantly assessing the bigger picture. With each short pass he is manoeuvring the opposition, ready to make the more ambitious pass when it presents itself. In this fast-paced game of chess, de Jong remains two moves ahead at all times.
Without a Champions League triumph since 2015, Barcelona
Expect de Jong to play a big part in Barcelona’s change in approach, and at just 22 he has years ahead of him to make his presence felt.
Suddenly, £67.5m doesn’t seem that much at all.