Frenkie de Jong said it himself. It is not hard to connect the dots between him, his former manager Erik ten Hag, Manchester United’s desperate need of a midfield and Barcelona’s many creditors. In theory, swapping Camp Nou for Old Trafford makes a lot of sense. “I understand that link is made,” De Jong admitted when asked about the speculation while away on international duty with the Netherlands earlier this month. “That sum is not that difficult, it is logical.”
To actually pull off a deal in practice has proven somewhat harder. United’s interest in De Jong has been public knowledge for more than a month now. Talks are ongoing but a compromise over the fee still needs to be found. While Barcelona are keen to extract as much as possible to ease their debt worries, United will not pay over the odds. The budget at Old Trafford is described as “sizeable” – and can be supplemented by proceeds from player sales – but it is far from limitless.
Midfield is United’s priority in the summer market. It is an area of the pitch that was in need of attention at the start of the season and has since lost Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic as part of an end-of-contract exodus. Old Trafford officials are comfortable with the number of players leaving for nothing this summer, with an admission inside the club that they have been guilty of carrying too big a squad in recent years and have paid the price on the pitch as a result.
De Jong, meanwhile, has made no secret of his desire to stay at Camp Nou if possible. If economic reality dictates he must be sold, the chance to work with Ten Hag again appeals and could override any desire to play in next season’s Champions League, but the 25-year-old’s claim this week that he “feels fine” at “the biggest club in the world” hinted at where his head is at. United are keeping lines of communication open with other targets in case an agreement cannot be reached with Barcelona.
That is just as well, as even if a deal is struck, another complicating factor is that De Jong is not a silver bullet for United’s long-standing problems in the middle of the park. Ten Hag’s first-choice midfield target is not the archetypal holding player that has long been needed at Old Trafford. He is not a younger, more mobile and athletic version of Matic that would go some way to shielding a defense which conceded more goals than relegated Burnley last season.
De Jong would be a much closer replacement to Pogba, with his ability to carry and distribute the ball further up the pitch. In the modern parlance, he is more of an ‘eight’ than a ‘six’. And what’s more, with De Jong, like Pogba, that distinction has not always been exactly clear. One of the dangers of this deal for United is that having finally cut themselves loose of a supremely talented player who has struggled to find himself the right role, they suddenly sign another.
De Jong knows what he is good at, at least. “I like to be the first player to receive the ball from the defenders”, he declared while away with the Netherlands this month. Since Louis van Gaal returned for a third stint in charge of Oranje, he has generally been deployed as Holland’s deepest-lying midfielder. The Netherlands are unbeaten in 13 games under Van Gaal, in which De Jong has played the vast majority of minutes. “I play differently compared to Barça and I think this [role] fits me better,” he claimed.
That could be down to the relatively straightforward World Cup qualifying group that the Netherlands were handed or the generally slower pace of international football. De Jong was excellent in the group stages of last summer’s Euros before a last-16 exit under the stewardship of Frank de Boer. Either way, his decent showings of him as a lone holding midfielder are drawn from a smaller sample size than the three years at Barcelona, which have been an altogether different story.
In Catalunya, experiments with De Jong as the deepest-lying member of the midfield have generally backfired. His first two appearances in Sergio Busquets’ role ended in defeats to Athletic Club and Granada. Another followed away to Levante. The notion that De Jong was destined to be Busquets’ heir quickly began to lose traction as it became apparent that his strengths lay in penetrating space rather than protecting it, and making the most of possession rather than retaining it.
Compare De Jong to more defensively minded midfielders, particularly when stopping counter-attacks. Over the last three seasons in La Liga, he has successfully tackled a dribbler only once every four games. Busquets, by contrast, has done so more than once a game. Eduardo Camavinga has been a Real Madrid player for just a season but he outperformed even Busquets by that measure. Meanwhile, De Jong’s one-in-four is in line with Marcus Rashford.
Anyone expecting that De Jong will single-handedly fix United’s midfield could be in for a surprise. Fortunately, his former – and possibly future – manager already knows this. Ten Hag has experience of building a team around De Jong’s rare abilities during their season-and-a-half together at Ajax and to him, he is simply not a lone holding midfielder. “He leaves the middle of the pitch too often for that, and if you don’t give him the freedom to go forward, you won’t get the best out of his game,” Ten Hag has previously said.
During their first few months together in Amsterdam, Ten Hag had in fact picked up where he predecessor Marcel Keizer had left off by playing De Jong as a centre-half. It was from this position that he would bring the ball out from the back with quick, direct runs that would force opposition players to press him and engage. In doing so, they would be pulled away from his teammates, who would be left in space and able to attack. Long spells of settled possession would suddenly turn into counter-attacking opportunities.
De Jong’s reputation as a code-breaking, new age Franz Beckenbauer grew but Ten Hag wanted him further upfield, where this ability to carry the ball from deep could have maximum impact. He was a “wanderer” and “adventurer”, his manager said, not only in possession but out of it too. “His quality of him is that he makes the forwards perform better… He’s always on the move like a shark. With the ball often but also without the ball. So if you put him on six, he’s away too often,” he told Voetbal International after his first Eredivisie title win.
Yet De Jong still wanted to play deep and bring the ball up the pitch, beyond where the deepest-lying midfielder would usually go. Ten Hag realized that in order to do that, he needed protection. Before the start of that first full season in charge in 2018-19, he ditched the 4-3-3 system that was synonymous with both Ajax and Johan Cruyff, breaking with tradition to get the best out of De Jong. “The qualities of the players determine the system, not the other way around,” he later explained. “Eventually I decided to play with two ‘number six’ players on the pitch.”
De Jong was paired with the more conservative Lasse Schone, who could carry some of the defensive responsibility while his midfield partner was moving up through the gears, going past players and moving in vertical rather than horizontal lines. “Once I did this you saw how much better [De Jong] became on the pitch, and how much better he made the whole team play and especially the attackers,” Ten Hag said. The result was that 2018-19 run to the Champions League semi-finals and De Jong being named the tournament’s best midfielder.
It is not a foolproof way to get the best out of a player who is still waiting to rediscover his form of that season, though. Ronald Koeman had some success pairing De Jong with Marten de Roon at international level but when he tried similar at the start of his Barcelona reign, he quickly ran into problems. De Jong’s best form under Koeman came more as one of the central midfielders in a 4-3-3. That is the same role he has largely occupied under Xavi, only to more mixed results. If he leaves Barcelona, he will depart having failed to fully establish himself or realize his undoubted potential of him.
Ten Hag is perhaps the only coach who has successfully and consistently got the best out of this immensely talented but enigmatic player. That at least bodes well for any reunion. What’s more, United are currently about as close as any top club gets to being a blank slate. Provided he is joined by another midfield signing who complements his unique abilities from him, De Jong will not have to awkwardly slot in as a six with too much defensive responsibility, or as an eight who cannot be involved in the build-up play. Instead, the entire structure could be built around him.
When you put it that way, it sounds like the “logical” deal De Jong has described. Barcelona need to sell. United want to buy. The player has a preference to stay but, it seems, he can be persuaded. And his prospective new manager would know how to get the very best out of him. Yet a compromise is needed in order for the talks between the two clubs to end successfully, and even then, history suggests that De Jong is unlikely to solve United’s midfield problems alone.