It has to do with the system. He is more right winger than right back. And my right back has to be able to defend very well in the first instance. He has played too few games in a four-man defence. Defending in particular raises doubts in me.” 

These are the words of Ronald Koeman in March, when discussing the absence of one Jeremie Frimpong from his Netherlands squad. Even allowing some room for the challenges and variables of international squad selection, rarely have a coach’s comments made less sense. 

Indeed, despite all of the talent Koeman has actually included in both his first and second squads – including opportunities for the likes of Tijjani Reijnders, Joey Veerman and Lutsharel Geertruida – it’s the omission of Frimpong from even the latest provisional group that has been the most controversial and widely debated decision amongst Oranje followers.

The 22 year-old Manchester City graduate is currently one of the most sought after young players in Europe, following two and a half seasons of progressive excellence for Bayer Leverkusen that has made him perhaps the premier right-sided defender in the Bundesliga. The Amsterdam-born defender is being heavily linked with Manchester United, with Erik ten Hag viewing him as the ideal short and long term solution for the right side of his defence. Other clubs reportedly enquiring in Frimpong are Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. In other words, some of the biggest clubs in the world.

Yet in the eyes of Koeman, such performances and attention do not merit inclusion in even his initial 32 two man squad for the huge Nations League semi-final in June against Croatia. With limited international game time before the quickly approaching European Championships next summer, it seems like an almighty act of potential self-sabotage. 

One theory for the absence of Frimpong, who initially came to the fore playing for Celtic –  where he won a domestic treble –  is that he has been kept back for the under-21 European Championships this summer. He is in Erwin van de Looi’s squad, but if this is Koeman’s train of thought, then his communication skills leave something to be desired. Another argument is that, with Denzel Dumfries the clear number one in the right back position and the likes of Geertruida and Fulham’s Kenny Tete having had excellent seasons, Frimpong simply cannot get a look-in right now. Yet, is he really only the Oranje’s fourth-choice right back?

The stats in the Bundesliga this season paint a completely different picture. In fact, they suggest that Frimpong is one of the finest all-round players in his position at present. With one game left of the season, he has an impressive 8 goals and 7 assists, the latter being more than Joshua Kimmich and Leroy Sane. He is also in the top 20 domestically for crosses this season. According to transfer markt, over his time at Leverkusen, he has amassed 31 goals or assists in just 94 appearances. To put that into context, it is similar to Trent Alexander-Arnold, rightly perceived as one of the best attacking full backs in the world, who has 33 in his last 93 appearances. It is interesting that Alexander-Arnold is also not really appreciated at international level.

Yet back to that quote from Koeman. In it, he states that “my right back has to be able to defend very well in the first instance”. It is the kind of statement that makes you wonder whether Koeman has watched players such as Frimpong at all. 

According to Sofascore, this season Frimpong defensively averages 1.5 tackles and 6.2 total duels won per game, which is actually higher than Koeman’s first choice right back Dumfries. Indeed, Frimpong is in the top 20 in the Bundesliga for duels won and one of the highest defenders on that list. He has comfortably completed more sprints than anyone else and with pace deemed key for the modern full-back, he even hit the 7th fastest top speed of the season, only half a second slower than the rapid Alfonso Davies. For a combative defender, he also has a very low rate of fouls committed, just 18 all season, a ridiculously low number. 

Therefore, the defensive criticism of Frimpong simply does not stack up. And what about the second half of Koeman’s argument? That “He is more right winger than right back” and “He has played too few games in a four-man defence”? This season, Frimpong has indeed played largely as a right-wing back in Xabi Alonso’s system, rather than the more traditional right back that Koeman wants for his 4-3-3 shape. Yet Dumfries has spent his whole time at Inter Milan as a right-wing back, undermining Koeman’s point straight away. 

And here’s the thing – before the 22/23 season, Frimpong had made 90 senior appearances. And the number of times he played at right back? 70. It may be the case that he is having his best campaign so far as a wing-back, but to suggest he has played too few games in a four-man defence is just factually wrong. During his time developing at Manchester City, where he gained his footballing education along with the likes of Jadon Sancho and Phil Foden, he also played regularly at left-back.

It is worth noting that Frimpong was selected by Louis van Gaal for the 2022 World Cup, although he ultimately did not make an appearance. The great statesman of Dutch football clearly could see that, whilst Frimpong wasn’t quite ready, he would be soon. For Koeman to renege on this pathway, and worse seemingly drop him even further down the pecking order, is difficult to understand. Fortunately, Frimpong has said that he is committed to playing for the Netherlands, even though he also has the options of representing Ghana or England. How long that commitment will remain if he continues to be overlooked remains to be seen. 

In short, the Netherlands has at its disposal an extremely talented, versatile and young defender with a very high ceiling for further development. Someone who is equally adept offensively and defensively. A player who has already acquired much first-team experience, winning trophies with Celtic and being part of Leverkusen’s run to the Europa League semi-finals. An individual who is passionate about representing his country and who is reportedly deemed by many of Europe’s top clubs to be worth investing up to 50 million euros in this summer. 

The ongoing absence of Jeremie Frimpong for the Netherlands is an international mystery. For fans of the Oranje, it will hopefully be one that Koeman resolves soon. 

Joe Baker (15 Posts)