“For now, six or a six-and-a-half.” The self-assessment of Frenkie de Jong evaluating his first six months as a Camp Nou regular. The €75m signing from Ajax became an immediate mainstay in the Barcelona midfield. He signed with the idea to develop into a legendary midfielder to replace the La Masia greats who had left years prior to his arrival. The Dutch international will need to step up his efforts to come close to emulating any semblance of those iconic figures.
Since the departures of Xavi and Iniesta, it has become almost impossible not to see a decline in the Barça philosophy laid out by the late great Johan Cruyff. Look through their ranks and it becomes abundantly clear that the influence of those from a now bygone era of European dominance is dwindling.
Lionel Messi, Gerard Piqué and Sergio Busquets represent the dying lights of a squad built on Cruyffian ideals. Those ideals aimed to be rejuvenated with the acquisition of Quique Setién, the intense control and high possession-based style of play have begun to reinstate themselves.
De Jong has been tasked with a key role in the midfield. At Ajax, de Jong was a proactive midfielder, driving the team forward from deep, even being involved with shots on goal. The Dutchman scored four goals in the previous campaign and took 0.72 shots per game. This has since dropped. The current season has seen two goals and only 0.26 shots per game.
The graphic above shows the shots from 2018/19, a high concentration occurring from outside the box. Ajax increase pressure on the opposition by creating a high level of chances and taking shots at earlier opportunities. You can see how de Jong’s eagerness to shoot has been changed by the graphic below. Playing at Barcelona has led to the Dutchman being more clinical and conscious of shot-taking.
You can also see how the frequency of shots from outside of the box has been reduced to near zero. The mindset that chances should only be taken when the possibility of a goal is very high is ingrained throughout the squad. Therefore, shots from outside the box in open play situations are very minimal.
De Jong has equipped this mentality to his game, and it has also seen an increase in the players’ shot accuracy. Previously with the high frequency from outside of the box, the 22-year-old had a shot accuracy of 32.4% – this has significantly risen to 75%.
With the long-standing Spaniard Sergio Busquets at the base of the midfield providing defensive cover and the main connection between the central defenders and the midfield and forward line, this has meant de Jong has shifted his passing responsibilities upfield into the opposition half. Shown below is the Ajax 4-1 win away at Real Madrid. The passes display the clear role that de Jong linked the deeper Dutch defence and midfield to the wide areas. A similar role to what we see from Granit Xhaka at Arsenal.
Now though, you can see below the graphic from Barcelona’s 1-1 draw against Napoli in the Champions League. De Jong’s passing focusses on high-intensity movement of the ball in the opposition’s half centrally with a slight skew to the left.
This has led to de Jong having three times as many assists this season compared to the entirety of the previous season and what is more impressive is the accuracy. Passes in the final third have risen from 89.9% to 92%.
De Jong may rate his own performances harshly, but the impact on both himself and the Barcelona side is clear to see. A season of obstacles and change has faced the Blaugrana, but the Dutch maestro in the middle has been a shining light of importance for both Ernesto Valverde and now Setién. The consistency in performances, even with the shift in responsibility highlights that the money spent by Barcelona on this Dutch talent has been money well spent – not a trait widely associated with the league leaders in recent times.