Frenkie de Jong’s dream move to Barcelona hasn’t gone as he would have hoped and Manchester United are looking to snare him away from the Nou Camp. Sam Matthews Boehmer looks at why the Premier League side could be the perfect move for De Jong.

  • Follow Sam on Twitter

Ever since he was a child, Frenkie De Jong has wanted to play for one club. As a boy, he and his family made trips away from their Arkel provincial home to the Costa Brava region of Spain, regularly going to Barcelona and marvelling at the Camp Nou and its environs. In 2018, he finally saw a live match with his girlfriend, Mikky Kiemeney, and, four years later, he was stepping out onto the pitch in the famous blaugrana colours, a dream fulfilled as the name Frenkie De Jong was plastered across the back of his beloved Barcelona’s kit.

A route familiar to Dutch players, Barcelona were always the only club De Jong wanted to play for other than Ajax. Cruyff, Koeman, De Boer… the list is endless of Dutch players who made what soon became the natural progression, from Amsterdam to Catalonia, and, in many ways, De Jong seemed like the perfect Barcelona player.

In 2018/19, he was outstanding for Ajax, gliding past players, finding space for himself, and dominating the likes of Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Miralem Pjanic in their dreamlike Champions League run. He was the heir apparent for Sergio Busquets, and the one man who looked like he could be the foundation stone for a midfield to match the Busquets-Iniesta-Xavi trio of old.

Very quickly, though, that dream, and those hopes, have turned sour. When De Jong signed for Barcelona in 2019, choosing them ahead of Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City (perhaps the perfect choice in hindsight), he could never have imagined the turmoil he was getting himself into.

This was a club in financial chaos, which his £70 million move only contributed to. Things started well, and, in his first year, De Jong described his situation as being “as I’d always wanted and imagined”. Barcelona led at the top of La Liga, but, by the end of the season, they’d fallen away to Real Madrid. Over the last two years, they have never really challenged for that title again. Lionel Messi left at the end of 2020/21, but it is positionally where De Jong has had the most problems.

Everyone thought that he’d be the perfect player for the Barcelona system, but it gradually emerged that this wasn’t the case. In the first place, Busquets was still there. His aura alone meant Frenkie was unlikely to be able to take his place. This meant he was forced to play further forward, occupying positions where he had less space and was unable to face forward and survey his options, a role that he never seemed able to adapt to fully.

In many ways, Barcelona also still tried to stick to a tiki-taka system that also didn’t play to Frenkie’s strengths. Yes, he is best in a possession-based side, but his whole style of play is based around moving the ball forward quickly, with his abilities in finding space and dribbling forward wasted in a side where he is expected to move the ball on as soon as he receives it.

Xavi seems determined to stick with this style, and rely on home-grown players like Gavi and Pedri, with Frenkie therefore just a sideshow, an accessory to the main event. He should have left before now, with some of his best years wasted in a failing side under a failing manager. Now though, it could be happening, and he may be moving, as questionable as it may seem, to the right team.

Manchester United have, in terms of their success on the football pitch, been in a similar plight to Barcelona recently. They finished second in 2020/21, but that was a brief moment of joy in a series of years since the departure of Alex Ferguson where reaching Champions League football has been a struggle.

Now, though, the atmosphere is completely different, a result of the arrival of one man: Erik ten Hag. In recent years, the club has seemed directionless, anchored by a series of managers, such as Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solksjaer whom, despite their respective qualities, never seemed like the answer to the club’s long-term problems.

Ferguson had provided an identity, building the club up into perhaps the world’s greatest, with a core of home-grown youngsters surrounded by the best the world has to offer. But the likes of Mourinho and Solksjaer, and significantly under the largely inept stewardship of Ed Woodward, that identity has been lost in the mire of short-termism and poor recruitment.

Judging by his achievements at Ajax, ten Hag can reverse this trend. As a coach first and foremost, he bears many resemblances to Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, who have built their respective clubs into the world’s best over the past five years. This was something that Solksjaer especially never provided and is intrinsic to creating a defined style of play to Old Trafford.

Early on, it seems as if this style of play will be similar to that of his infamous Ajax sides, of quick transitions, vertical ball progression and a possession-based style of play. The problem is, he clearly feels the most important piece of the jigsaw needed for this style to succeed, is missing. He needs a cornerstone, a player to rely on, who will connect all of his disparate pieces in defence and attack together into a united whole: a player he can build his team around. That man is Frenkie De Jong.

Part of the reason De Jong and ten Hag were so successful together at Ajax was because of their reliance on each other. De Jong knew he was vital to the team, as he is for the Dutch National Team, and therefore performed, with the fact that ten Hag knew exactly how to fit him into his team naturally an important factor as well.

This is a reliance, and a relationship, that De Jong has never had replicated at Barcelona. The presence of Busquets, of Pedri, meant that De Jong was never the main man, the first point of call for the defence to pass the ball on. If Busquets and De Jong were the two options, his prestige meant the ball was always going to be played to Busquets. Such trends meant De Jong was never given the chance to showcase his abilities in opening space and providing opportunities for the attack. Had he been, Barcelona would have been a far more successful side.

Manchester United, and ten Hag, will give him that prescience. He will be the man the team will be built around. Unlike anyone else on the globe, ten Hag knows where and how to play De Jong, and that is why he should join Manchester United. He will play in a double pivot, most likely alongside Fred, and that is where he will shine.

Frenkie De Jong is one of the best players in the world, he just hasn’t had the chance to showcase it. Soon he will have the platform to shine.

Sam Matthews Boehmer (5 Posts)