Manchester City’s hunt for the elusive defensive midfielder – Part 5

In the final instalment of our five-part series, City Xtra finally looks toward the player that simply everybody is talking about. Some compare him to Beckenbauer. Others liken him to Johan Cruyff. One thing is for sure though. There’s only one Frenkie de Jong.

Having scoured the likes of Ligue 1, the Bundesliga and even the Premier League, you might have thought that our search for Europe’s premium midfield talent had been exhausted. French, Portuguese and German players have populated our profiles thus far, giving a possibly unsurprising trend to those nations that have succeeded in major international tournaments in the last four years.

Perhaps this is where we went wrong. That is not meant as a slight to Spain or La Liga of course (who have eluded our analysis), but when the choice becomes as obvious as it is with this player, then there really is no point in delaying. 

For as with this final piece, we are taking a closer look at a nation and a league that has been out of favour for some time. In Holland, where it seemed football had been on the decline since reaching the 2010 World Cup final, there is one player who is excelling above all others, in a style reminiscent of the ‘total football’ of old.

Given the footballing foundations upon which Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola has built his managerial career, this correlation should prove too good to be true. As we shall see though, those football philosophies and astounding talents make City just one interested party when it comes to…

Frenkie de Jong – Ajax, 21

UEFA Nations League A group 1"France v The Netherlands"
frenkie de Jong of the Netherlands during the UEFA Nations League A group 1 qualifying match between France and The Netherlands on September 09, 2018 at Stade de France in Saint Denis, France(Photo by VI Images via Getty Images)

You would think that with the frequency and excitement of his mentioning, Ajax’s Frenkie de Jong would bear the words ‘The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread’ on the back of his shirt. Sadly not, but it does not mean that every club in Europe is not currently tearing their hair out as they try to ascertain how a young man of 21 can simply be that good.

Unlike some on this list, de Jong has been a relatively recent phenomenon. Having been a substitute in Ajax’s 2-0 Europa League final defeat to Manchester United 2016, it wouldn’t be until the beginning of this season that the Dutchman would find regular starts in his preferred midfield position. That is not to say this has prevented the youngster from impressing though – he can simply slot in at centre back if needed.

This versatility would make de Jong a clear target for clubs dedicated to a free-flowing style of football. Yet that is without mentioning his very obvious talent, which is startling apparent on the field. Superb ball control, an eye for a pass, and even astounding dribbling on occasion, the recent Dutch international carries an unnerving blend of peace and precision, just as content to orchestrate games as he is to cut them wide open.

Don’t let me tell you though – allow the folks at OPTA to demonstrate exactly how brilliant de Jong can be. Indeed, in the excellent article linked here, it is clear to see just why the Dutchman is of such wide interest. Notably, in Europe’s top five leagues and the Dutch Eredivisie combined, De Jong is noticeably amongst the very best; his number of progressive carries with the ball dwarfs all others; his 85% pass success in the final third is behind only a select few such as Toni Kroos and Ngolo Kante; his successful duel and recovery rates are in a league of their very own. 

(OptaPro, 2019)

As such, it is no wonder that names across the world of football have slowly begun to sing the praises of de Jong. Whilst some of these have become veered toward the egregiously outlandish, admiration from those likes of Xavi should not be taken likely.

“He looks like Sergio Busquets in terms of playing style,” the former Barcelona sensation has said recently. “He’s young, but I think he can make a huge contribution [to Barcelona] now. He is seen as a beastly talent. He’s really a player to keep an eye on.”

“De Jong’s profile is exactly what Barcelona need. A player who is technically very strong, wants to work for the team, but above all has a lot of talent.”

This talent is so strong that it has allowed de Jong to take to the stage at any level of his career. Whilst not a direct product of the renowned Ajax academy system, his remarkable abilities made coaches wonder if they had missed a trick in not finding de Jong earlier. What’s more is that evidence of the UEFA Nations League games, you would think Ronald Koeman and the rest of Dutch football was not thinking the very same thing.

To return to Xavi’s comments, the strong interest in de Jong as a model Barcelona player could prove to be both the biggest boon and biggest threat to Manchester City’s pursuit of the young Ajax star.

Given the infamous claims in German publication Der Spiegel, you would think that City’s hunt to appoint Pep Guardiola was some sort of massive conspiracy. The appointment becomes almost a thing of logic when looking at the club’s infrastructure though — it has been rebuilt practically in the Catalonian image, courtesy of Guardiola’s close friends from his Barça days, Ferran Soriano, Txiki Begiristain and Omar Berrada.

Should de Jong’s choice come down to Catalonia and North West England then, it is easy to see how this can be construed as between the identities of two Barcelona’s, one literal, the other ideological. The former may house Lionel Messi and Sergio Busquets within a historic Cruyffian cathedral, yet the latter is an active evolution Cruyff’s footballing philosophies in the hands of perhaps his greatest disciple. When the time comes to choose, de Jong must ask – does he wish to honour the past, or be part of the future?

Given how the Dutchman has talked of wanting to play with Messi or improving his game by watching videos of Xavi and Iniesta, it would easy to become dispirited at even entertaining the thought of a potential transfer to City. However, the Barcelona of today is not the Barcelona of Pep Guardiola.

The Catalan club is enduring its own identity crisis under Ernesto Valverde at present, wherein the only position one could argue to be secured is at the helm of midfield, with the incomparable Sergio Busquets contracted until 2023 and the famed La Masia academy holding several eager talents such as Riqui Puig or the aptly named Oriol Busquets (no relation). With ageing players presenting more a problem in other areas of the pitch, it would not be a surprise to see the Blaugrana focus their attentions on De Jong’s Ajax and Netherlands teammate, gifted centre back Matthijs De Ligt. Despite signing promising French youngster Jean-Clair Todibo on a free transfer, the La Liga giants will want to ensure they secure their backline.

Meanwhile, Manchester City is a different proposition. Though imperious, Fernandinho is only under contract until 2020, giving a prospective young arrival such as de Jong a season to adapt to the English game if need be. More importantly, that same window would unite the new Netherlands arrival with Pep Guardiola. As much as Xavi may believe that de Jong is purpose-built for Barcelona, it is arguable that their philosophies are finding more joy under the stewarding of Guardiola in Manchester than back in Catalonia.

Should the Dutchman wish to mould his game after those famed players of that 2008-12 dynasty, what better option is there than to learn under the very man who orchestrated it all? Likewise, this could very well be the transfer that completes Pep Guardiola’s tactical dreams. The key to a generational talent may lie with a vital phone call.

City Xtra score: 10/10

So there you have it! To recap, here are our final rankings for our midfield candidates:

1. Frenkie De Jong – 10/10

2. Tanguy Ndombele – 8/10

3. Rúben Neves – 7/10

4. Adrien Rabiot – 6/10

5. Julian Weigl – 5/10

Disagree with our rankings? Think you know a better option? Be sure to leave a comment down below!

Previously in this series:
Manchester City’s hunt for the elusive defensive midfielder – Part 1

Manchester City’s hunt for the elusive defensive midfielder – Part 2

Manchester City’s hunt for the elusive defensive midfielder – Part 3

Manchester City’s hunt for the elusive defensive midfielder – Part 4

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