Over the years, Dutch football has produced some of the most elegant attacking players in Cruyff, Overmars, Van Basten and Bergkamp. After a slight drought, it has yet again feasted us with some of the best football over the last year or two with Ajax reaching the semi-final in the champions league and the Dutch NT reaching the final in the nation’s league. Two of their brightest prospects- de Ligt and de Jong have moved away in big-money signings.
As a young boy, Frenkie de Jong moved to Wilhelm II where he enjoyed most of his youth football—later moving to the Dutch capital to the famed Ajax academy. The two clubs have shaped not only his technical and tactical abilities but also his mental strength.
One of his former coaches said
“When I analyse Frenkie, I see a number 6 in him. He’s a modern midfielder, who can turn opponents so easily. He’ll start at 6 but move into the number 8 or 10 role. He’s got amazing qualities, anyone can see this.”
-Robert Bosz (former Ajax coach)
Despite starting out as an attacking midfielder in the youth levels, he’s moved much deeper because of his comfort with the ball, uncanny ball control and supreme control under pressure.
In the 2018-19 season, he played in a two-man pivot and was responsible for dropping deep and helping in the build-up. Unlike usual at Barcelona, he covers for the attacking left full-back in a make-shift three at the back. (instead of splitting the CBs).
Notwithstanding coming from teams that rely on controlling the ball and dominating the opposition by measured possession of the ball, Frenkie seems to come from a different mould. He prefers to dribble past opponents who press him. This might not be the typical flashy footwork and mesmerizing skill, but a simple change in acceleration and direction.
We can see that his main aim is to get away from opponents, which is usually achieved by using the momentum of the pressing opponent to move away from him. He receives most passes with the inside of his left foot or outside of the right foot, in the intention of moving it away from his body. With most of his dribbling coming from outside of the right foot. This helps in unbalancing the opponent, which he accelerates out of. As we see in most cases, he’s calm under pressure and even invites opponents to press, to dribble into spaces left behind them. His dribbling attracts attention, for the rest of the team to make runs in behind.
Over the years, he’s recognized situations in which he diligently decides between passing and dribbling, sometimes using quick one-twos to get out of tight spots.
This doesn’t take away the exquisite passing ability that Frenkie possesses in his arsenal. Though most would argue that the dribbling is only to direct passes to teammates in free space higher up the pitch from where they can have a greater impact on the pitch.
Playing as a double pivot for Ajax brings its fair share of defensive responsibilities and de Jong doesn’t shy away from them. He not only possesses good man-man defending and cover shadowing skills but is also very good at pressing opponents and cutting off passes. This coupled with his impeccable dribbling and direct passing helps the team to make quick attacking transitions from deep seamlessly.
Transfer to Barcelona
When Frenkie finally moved to his dream club, he endured a bang average season showing only glimpses of the flair and flamboyance of the previous season.
Though 30% fewer touches of the ball and half the xG build-up compared to his Ajax stint don’t tell the whole story, it indicates part of the problem.
Both managers have played him as an interior (mostly on the right), much higher up the pitch than he’s used to. This is on the back of his dynamism and athleticism in the middle third, getting away from pressing traps and cover shadows, coupled with his will to make vertical and diagonal balls to break opposition lines.
But playing in a 4-3-3 with Messi moving central and a defensive RB, Frenkie has sometimes been forced to provide width on the right. This has been detrimental to his game, as being strongly right-footed he’s more inclined to move inside from the left, than overlap on the right.
Many pundits and fans alike have wanted to see Frenkie in the pivot position that Busquets has been occupying since Pep arrived, even calling him ‘the successor’. But this argument is not very ideal considering both the team situation and individual profile. One of the biggest problems currently, is the lack of creativity and movement in the middle and attacking third, which he provides with impeccable play-making skills . Added to that his tenacious pressing abilities higher up the pitch make him a vital cog in the team.
Though it’s unfair to compare anyone to Xavi at his prime, (and the lack of parity in the level of leagues), we can see much potential, with astonishing similarities in deep progressive abilities, xG build-up, few number of turnovers given away.
He could play a role very similar to Xavi, which involved dropping to receive the ball and help maintain the momentum of the team and circulating the ball higher up along with making runs behind the defensive line.
Having performed in a similar role at Ajax he’s proficient at scanning the field, linking teammates from deep inside his own half and constantly moving to create angles with the ball carrier to receive the ball in advantageous positions He also possesses the physicality to shield the ball and is agile enough to turn away and dribble, which makes him more than qualified to play a similar role at the Catalan club.
After Xavi and Iniesta’s retirement, Messi has had to drop much deeper to collect the ball (as indicated by the heat maps below). With Frenkie in this type of role, Setien could reduce his burden, thus engaging him higher up the field, making him more effective so that he can use his energy in a more attacking sense.
In the above analysis, we tried to showcase the positional difference in Frenkie’s stints after his transfer that has caused the drop in performance. With the advent of a diamond formation, to incorporate the forward trio, Frenkie might be benefited in playing a box to box sort of role impacting both the defensive and offensive facets of the game.