When Frenkie de Jong joined Barcelona last summer, the last thing he would have expected was a season of flux and turmoil.
The club had, after all, not sacked a coach mid-season for 17 years. But when Ernesto Valverde was dismissed in January, he found himself playing for a new manager.
He also would have expected stability in terms of where he was playing on the pitch and in which formation. Barcelona’s 4-3-3 seemed fairly set in stone.
Frenkie de Jong runs with the ball during Barcelona’s 2-0 defeat by rivals Real Madrid last week
De Jong has played under Quique Setien (left) and Ernesto Valverde (right) this season
But just as he has already played for two different coaches (and he’ll be on his third this summer if Barcelona fail to win a trophy), he has also played in three different systems and in four different positions. It’s no wonder things have not gone as well as most hoped in his first season.
When he was initially signed in January 2019, hopes were immediately raised that this was Barcelona at last signing a midfielder who would honour their finest traditions.
Club president Josep Maria Bartomeu wore a huge grin as he sat between Marc Overmars and Edwin van der Sar to record the agreement between Barca and Ajax.
He had jetted in dramatically to talk to the player personally and persuade him to move to Barcelona instead of signing an almost-agreed deal with PSG.
‘It’s on me if this doesn’t work out’ was the sentiment expressed by Bartomeu after the £65million transfer was complete. So far it hasn’t worked out. At least not as well as so many at the club believed it would.
Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu (right) made a special effort to beat PSG to De Jong
The Dutchman plays a pass under pressure from Real Madrid’s Casemiro last weekend
DE JONG IN 2019-20
That graceful glide around the pitch, with head up and ball never more than a few blades of grass from his feet, is still there but the 22-year-old, whose total football at Ajax looked as if it would make him the perfect fit at Barcelona, has to a large extent disappeared. Headlines in Spain have ranged from: What happened to De Jong? To: Where is De Jong?
De Jong’s former coach at Ajax, Erik ten Hag, has already given his verdict on what the problem might be. ‘He is not a goalscorer,’ he told Ziggo Sport. ‘He is the player who takes care of supply. He feeds his team-mates.’
The feeling among those who knew him in Holland is that he needs the pitch in front of him. Currently he is being asked to receive it higher up the pitch and to be the player who makes the run beyond the strikers to break the opposition’s defensive lines.
In the Clasico, he looked lost playing wide left of what was often a four-man midfield. Boss Quique Setien preferred Sergio Busquets in the middle alongside Arthur Melo, with Arturo Vidal playing on the other side of the quartet.
It’s coaching decisions like that which provoked Louis van Gaal to say that he should not have gone to Barcelona because: ‘they already have Busquets’.
De Jong poses with Donny van de Beek after winning the Eredivisie title with Ajax last year
Sergio Busquets (left) plays in a similar position to De Jong, but they may be best off as a pair
De Jong did play in Busquets’ position under Valverde when the Spain international – who will be 32 years old this summer and is slowing down – was rested, but it rarely worked completely satisfactorily. There is a discipline to Busquets’ position that De Jong, more maverick in style, could not quite maintain for 90 minutes.
The solution seemed to be playing him in a ‘double-pivot’ alongside Busquets in a 4-2-3-1 formation. It was where he usually played for Ajax alongside Lasse Schone.
The system ought to have suited Busquets, who played in a pair in Spain’s golden age when, alongside Xabi Alonso, he helped make them unbeatable. It was perhaps the direction in which Valverde wanted things to develop, but he was sacked in the New Year so we will never know.
Setien has come in and already changed formation three times from 3-5-2, to 4-3-3, to 4-4-2. Now with just two forwards up top, he wants his midfielders arriving from deep more than ever to play so that they play as auxiliary strikers. De Jong has tried to be that player with, as the Spanish say ‘arrival’, but he is struggling.
Often when he makes the run he is not played in, which is what happened on Sunday against Real Madrid when Lionel Messi seemed to ignore his run down the left in the second half, even though he was the man in space.
De Jong was expected to fit seamlessly into Barca’s midfield but his progress has been slow
The former Ajax star has not sat on the bench much this season, having started 32 matches
De Jong has so far only played once as a pair alongside Busquets. He has played 27 games as either the lateral midfielder in a 4-3-3, or a wide midfielder in a 4-4-2.
It seems as though Barcelona have pulled an old Real Madrid trick of buying a player and not playing him in his position. But not everyone believes that should serve as an excuse for De Jong.
Ruud Gullit is among those who believe De Jong needs to adapt to Barcelona and not the other way around. He thinks the Holland international should become more box-to-box. There is also a belief that he is being spoiled at Barcelona by purists who are reluctant to see any fault in the young midfielder.
He could certainly start shooting more. Diario AS reported this week that he has had one shot on target from outside the area all season compared with Toni Kroos, who has 49 for Real Madrid.
Then again, will shooting from distance or even playing some of those brilliant long passes that he played for Ajax meet with the approval of Setien and his No 2 Eder Sarabia?
The 22-year-old, pictured in action against England last summer, is a regular for Holland
De Jong tussles with Napoli midfielder Allan during the first leg of their Champions League tie
For De Jong, the worst thing this season has been the lack of consistency in what he is being asked for.
Perhaps he will grasp the concepts Setien is so often mentioning, but what happens then if the manager doesn’t last beyond the summer? Will a new coach, be it Ronald Koeman or Xavi, ask the same things of him? Probably not.
No one at Barcelona believes he will not come good, whatever changes lie ahead on the bench. It will take time.
He only became an Ajax regular halfway through the 2017-18 season. The fine balance between respecting the Barca hierarchy (giving the ball to Messi) and being bold and unpredictable (not giving the ball to Messi all the time), still needs to be found.
Barcelona have got little right in the transfer market since 2014 when they signed Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Luis Suarez and Ivan Rakitic. De Jong still looks like breaking that bad run, but it’s not happening as fast as Barcelona need it to.