Let us be clear – Frenkie de Jong is a world class footballer. Along with Virgil van Dijk, he was one of only two the Netherlands had in their squad for Euro 2024. The Oranje simply do not have another individual as good as de Jong at dictating the play and moving the ball, who can collect it from deep on the half turn under pressure, or dribble into previously unseen gaps to add tempo to the Dutch play, finding small gaps like slalom skier.

To lose him – not just for the first few games as some expected – but for the whole tournament, is a huge blow to Ronald Koeman and the mass of orange heading to Germany over the coming weeks.

Yet, whilst the 27 year-old former Ajax star will most certainly be back for future tournaments, in the short-term losing de Jong may not be as disastrous as it may at first seem.

Half the fitness, half the impact

Firstly, we could write a short novel about international teams who have made the mistake of throwing a star player into a tournament who they know is not physically ready, only to find their great expectations unrealistic and to the detriment of the team. The example of Wayne Rooney springs instantly to mind. Since injuring his ankle playing for Barcelona in March, de Jong has played only three matches. Even if he was finally over the problem, it would have taken him at least a few run-outs to get back to full match fitness. In tournament football, where everything could be over for you in less than 10 days if things go badly and every minute could be crucial, would the individual positive of having a semi-fit de Jong have outweighed the collective negative if the team was having to carry a half fit player? It is highly unlikely that, had he been given the all clear, his influence would be anything close to what we saw at the World Cup.

Short-term pain, long-term gain

As Koeman has stated, he had to take de Jong’s long-term fitness into account. By the next World Cup he will be 29. Arguably, he should be heading to North America and Mexico in his absolute prime. Yet Oranje dreams of de Jong fulfilling his destiny by inspiring his country to international glory will remain exactly that unless he is able to get over the injury issues that have plagued him in recent seasons. Those who do not watch much of de Jong perhaps do not quite realise the physical element to his game and his ability to get around the pitch. He has always been part passing metronome, part road runner. Naturally age will eventually dictate a change in such a style yet that should be a long way off yet. According to transfermarket, de Jong has missed 42 matches in the past three seasons due to nine separate injuries. In the intense modern football calendar, having a summer off will be invaluable in letting his body properly recuperate – for him and the Netherlands.

Strong replacements

Some would argue it still would have been beneficial to have de Jong as a squad player who, if the Oranje were to progress out of a tricky Group stage, could make impactful cameos off the bench. Yet, not only would that have taken up the spot of a young, fit and ready squad player such as Ryan Gravenberch, it could have also negatively impacted a midfield partnership strengthened in Eindhoven and primed to deliver on the international stage – the link up between Joey Veerman and Jordy Schouten.

The pair were standout performers in central midfield for the PSV Eindhoven team that romped to the Eredivisie title. Individually they do not have the same level of quality as de Jong, although it will be interesting to see how Veerman develops if he moves to one of Europe’s biggest clubs. However, football isn’t merely about individual talent. It’s also about partnerships and understanding, something that is hard to develop in international football with few games and training sessions over the course of the season. For Koeman to have a midfield duo who know each other’s games so well, coming off a season of success, is an enormous plus. Each player is in superb form too. No Eredivisie player got more assists or created more chances last season than Veerman, whilst Schouten seamlessly slotted into PSV’s midfield following his summer move from Bologna. In the top 10 for successful passes, he was the foundation which enabled Veerman, Bakayoku et all to wreak havoc. 

The Netherlands remain in good shape

They were only friendly matches but it wasn’t just the two wins, 8 goals and zero conceded that got Oranje fans excited about the pre-tournament matches against Iceland and Canada. It was also the surprising sharpness and fluidity of the side, including in a midfield that surely would have had de Jong and Teun Koopmeiners – another unfortunate injury absentee – in from the start. Against Iceland, with Schouten in front of the back four, Veerman and Tijjani Reijnders had the freedom to create in the final third through late runs and incisive passing. Would they have had the same luxury with de Jong, a more offensive deep lying midfielder? Would both of them even have played? The de Jong sized hole cannot be ignored. Yet he has not played for his country since September 2023. And it is equally hard to ignore how well-balanced the midfield trio of Schouten, Veerman and Reijnders looks.

It feels like blasphemy to talk optimistically about a Netherlands side without Frenkie de Jong. The poster boy for the side ever since his first cap 6 years ago. To not have him at the Euros is a blow to all football lovers, not just to Oranje supporters. He will be back. Yet in the short-term, the outlook is not as dark as many would assume. Every cloud has a silver lining.

We all thought that if the Netherland’s were to win their 2nd international trophy since 1988, de Jong would be at the centre of it. Could we be about to be proven wrong?

Joe Baker (15 Posts)