It is never a given that a new signing will find his position in a new team from day one. Especially when the new signing has come into a new league at a young age from a tactically different area. That was the issue facing Frenkie De Jong at Barcelona not too long ago.
Or perhaps, a positional dilemma is still facing him. The Dutchman came to the Nou Camp amidst immense fanfare and celebration. Barcelona had finally got their man. He was seen as the man who fit into the club’s ways of playing a technical and possession brand of football.
The Dutchman did look to find his place early on. But as time has gone by, he seems to have really found his position in that Catalan midfield.
Barca’s recent 1-0 win over Atletico Madrid was another reminder of that. The Ajax youth product De Jong played on the right side of the central midfield, with Ivan Rakitic behind him. The Croatian started as the defensive midfielder, with Arthur also slightly ahead of him.
Against Atletico’s 4-4-2 shape, De Jong’s ability and intelligence to pick out spaces was key. His tendency to hold the ball in tight spaces was just as important, bar his immense passing abilities.
It is certainly tough to pick out open spaces against Atleti. But De Jong’s inclusion in those spaces way key. He came up with 66 accurate passes- the fifth-highest on the pitch, despite playing in tight midfield spaces. He had a passing percentage of 94% and had two key passes as well.
He was vital in keeping play moving and getting Atleti to move from side to side. Against a team that plays in a low-block, quick passes are key to dislodging them, and De Jong did just that.
He also completed two dribbles in the game, not getting dribbled past even once. He never lost the ball too – something that’s rare for a midfielder against a Diego Simeone side. He did complete one tackle whilst making three interceptions too.
It was a fair reflection of how the player should be used. Even against Borussia Dortmund recently, De Jong played in the same position. And his passing was a joy to behold – he misplaced only four passes and had a percentage of 94%.
It shows what the player’s preferred position is. After all, this is how Ajax used him last season under Eric ten Hag too.
In the Ajax 4-2-3-1, De Jong would feature in front of Lasse Schone in midfield. The Dane would be the holding midfielder with De Jong beside him. But Schone would sit deeper and allow De Jong to link the midfield and attack. The same happened in the Eredivisie and in the Champions League too.
His excellent ability on the ball would allow him to often take it forward. Or just conduct play from the heart of the pitch.
Having said that, Ernesto Valverde has still been using him as a defensive midfielder many times. He has done that in the last three league games before Atleti, but it is time to realise that it isn’t his right position, even though he can do a job there.
It isn’t as if the Atleti win would show that. There is historical evidence for that, as mentioned above.
De Jong is a player who can adapt himself to both positions – as it is evident. In the long term though, he isn’t Sergio Busquets’ successor. He is more of a Rakitic successor than Busquets’.