He’s a polarising character, and certainly hasn’t been the most instrumental figure in the Dutch national side’s recent performances. But while Nigel de Jong’s presence on the pitch is never understated, his importance to the side has been and probably always will be.

  • By Jake Davison
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Nigel de Jong is not Xavi Hernandez and he’s not Bastian Schweinsteiger. He’s never going to be praised as an orchestrator of great plays because he isn’t. But Nigel de Jong doesn’t try to be. The AC Milan midfielder is in this Dutch side to reinforce a fairly inexperienced backline that, despite showing a lot of promise, does need some support at times. His defensive duty is to sit in front of them, go to meet attackers and drop into the backline when one of the defenders does. Nobody knows this better than De Jong.

It’s a role that is reminiscent of Christian Poulsen’s place in the Ajax squad over the past two seasons. A strong, experienced defensive midfielder who, while hot-tempered at times, has a very good head on his shoulders, supporting an incredibly promising backline. It worked wonders at Ajax, with Poulsen’s ability to bring structure to the back four guiding Ajax to conceding the fewest goals in the league for two seasons running (though he featured less in the latter season).

In the 5-3-2 system we’ve seen in the first two group games of this year’s World Cup, we’ve seen De Jong do two things very well. Sitting just in front of the three centre-backs, he often is able to surge forward to meet an attacker and take them on without leaving a vulnerability behind him. This creates early pressure as an opponent teams begins to enter the final third, where a centre-back would have to either stay deep and hold the line, or go to meet the attacker and leave a hole behind him. This two-pronged defence worked particularly well against a Spanish team that like to enjoy a lot of time on the ball.

De Jong’s positioning introduces a level of versatility to the Dutch defence. His awareness of the position of every player in the backline allows him to drift in to fill any exploitable gaps left by defenders moving to screen runs or take a man on. Positioning is arguably one of the hardest aspects of a defensive game to get right and it mainly comes with experience, something that much of the Oranje lack in this young side. With 73 caps, the 29 year-old has experience in great plenitude and his mental capabilities on the field of play are frequently overlooked. He provides the defence with a bit of room for error because his awareness sees him spot problems before they occur and take care of them subsequently.

You can say what you like about the methods of “The Lawnmower” who, as that nickname would suggest, is not afraid of cutting a man down. But he is a difficult man to get past. He is an imposing presence on the pitch and not one that a less confident player would want to take on. Physically, they don’t come tougher or stronger than Nigel de Jong.

Averaging a 79% success rate in his two games thus far in the competition, he is easily one of the most reliable passers in the side. In his current role, these tend not to be key incisive passes, but he knows when and how to dish the ball out and is often the first step in an attack as the ball is passed out from the defence. However he was criticized, and rightly so, for taking a bit too much time on the ball against Spain which led to him losing possession on a few occasions.

At times, we see shades of the player De Jong started off as at Ajax. He was originally more of an attacking midfielder and when he senses the momentum of the game going with the Dutch, he will push up and give the opposition another man to worry about. We saw this in the latter stages of the game against Australia when the Oranje started to take a more commanding role in the game. He pushed forwards more, played a few more direct passes, almost setting up Robin van Persie with a well weighted aerial ball into the box. He had a venomous shot on goal around this stage of the match too as he really surged toward the final third when Australia were really on the back foot. It’s easy of the opposition to forget about a player like this that can remain deep for most of the game and catch a team off guard when they’re faced with a lot of pressure.

So while he may not be the most instrumental player in this Dutch side, he is certainly a brilliant reinforcing factor to the Dutch defence and a dependable distributor of the ball. A  sound and very capable footballing mind, perhaps cloaked in a brutish, hard man exterior. Nigel de Jong’s importance to this young Netherlands side is and will continue to be understated; he is the unsung enforcer of the Oranje.

Jake Davison (5 Posts)