Just what can De Jong bring to Man Utd after three years at Barcelona?

By Sports Desk July 14, 2022

Erik ten Hag is edging closer to getting his man, or so it seems.

While Tyrell Malacia signed last week and deals for Christian Eriksen and Lisandro Martinez seem close to going through, it is clear that Manchester United's priority transfer target has been Frenkie de Jong.

A star of Ten Hag's Ajax team, De Jong was tipped to help take Barcelona's midfield into the post-Xavi and Andres Iniesta era when he switched Amsterdam for Catalonia in 2019.

Yet, three years on, United have reportedly agreed a fee in the region of £63million (€75m) with Barcelona for the Netherlands international, with a further £8.5m (€10m) in add-ons also possible.

There is one small matter that needs to be resolved, though: De Jong needs convincing to make the switch from Barcelona to Manchester.

Barcelona president Joan Laporta told reporters on July 2 that De Jong had indicated he wished to stay at the club, but then suggested that if the Dutchman were to get his wish, he would have to take a wage cut.

That Laporta believes he would have to negotiate a salary decrease with a player who signed a lucrative contract only three years ago illustrates where Barca have gone wrong, and just why it is hard to fairly judge De Jong's time at Camp Nou, in which he has worked under four coaches – Ernesto Valverde, Quique Setien, Ronald Koeman and Xavi.

The latter was keen to keep hold of the midfielder, but with Barca having signed Franck Kessie and Andreas Christensen on free transfers and agreed a deal with Leeds United for Raphinha – not to mention handing Ousmane Dembele a new deal – a big sale is apparently required.

While there is still potential for this deal to fall through, should De Jong stick to his guns, it does seem increasingly likely he will be lining up at Old Trafford next season. So, just what will he bring that United need?

Has he lived up to the hype?

De Jong came into a Barca team that had slumped to a humbling Champions League semi-final defeat to Liverpool and were reeling from that implosion.

Valverde's team let a 3-0 aggregate lead slip in that tie, and truly the coach never recovered. Yet Barca splashed out an initial €75m to add stardust to their midfield and back the coach.

On paper, De Jong is the ideal Barca player, the embodiment of total football; an elegant runner, skilful in possession and a brilliant passer, while he is versatile enough to play in any midfield role or even in the centre of defence.

Over the course of his three seasons at Camp Nou, only Sergio Busquets (144) has made more appearances than his 140, so fitting De Jong into the side has not been an issue, while his creativity has certainly come to the fore, with his 149 chances created ranking behind just Lionel Messi (233) and Jordi Alba (207).

Last season, he created 40 chances in 32 LaLiga games.

 

He ranks fifth for assists (15) in the last three seasons, though it should be noted that both Messi and Antoine Griezmann, who are ahead of him in that metric, left the club in 2021.

De Jong's 10,158 touches puts him third at Barca for the same period, with his 645 duels won likewise third, with only Messi (800) and Busquets (814) winning more.

Under Ten Hag, De Jong might well be employed as a deep-lying playmaker as he was often utilised for Ajax. At Barca, Busquets has remained the midfield metronome, topping the charts for passes attempted (10,799) and completed (9,676), though De Jong does boast a better accuracy than the Blaugrana stalwart (91.8 to 89.6).

But for all his quality, De Jong has been unable to transform Barca's midfield, with Pedri and Gavi the new kids on the block. It is that duo that have seemingly grasped the initiative more, with Busquets still trusted by his former team-mate Xavi.

A clear improvement...

De Jong might not have been able to become the superstar many forecast at Barca, but at 25, he has plenty in the tank and, in truth, strolls into United's midfield.

It has been an area of weakness for several seasons, despite the huge investment in Paul Pogba, Fred and Bruno Fernandes.

While Fernandes has, of course, proved a huge success in England, Pogba only managed flashes of brilliance across his six-year second spell at Old Trafford and has now left on a free, while neither Fred nor Scott McTominay seem natural fits for Ten Hag's possession-based, fluid system.

De Jong fits that bill with aplomb and is a huge step-up on what United have in that area.

With Eriksen's impending arrival set to supplement Fernandes as a creator, De Jong could take up the mantle as United's midfield general from a deeper position, whether playing in front of the defence in a 4-3-3, or as part of a double-pivot in a 4-2-3-1 shape, as was employed in this week's 4-0 friendly win over Liverpool.

 

Last season alone, De Jong completed more passes – 2,160 – than any United midfielder, with only Fernandes (1,849) getting close. He also proved consistently available, playing 47 times, 20 more than Pogba, who he is effectively replacing.

Perhaps surprisingly, only Fred (372) and Fernandes (841), of United midfielders, lost possession more times, excluding hoofs, than De Jong (359) last term.

However, De Jong is adept at winning the ball back, having made 226 recoveries, and the fact he did lose possession so much appears to be largely due to him attempting so many more passes than his United counterparts.

De Jong's dribbling ability adds another dimension to United's attack, with his prowess at carrying the ball upfield a useful tool while in transition. His dribble success rate of 77.4 per cent is better than any of United's regular midfielders from last season, bar Matic, who only attempted 27 dribbles. Opta data shows De Jong made 279 progressive ball carries in LaLiga last season. In comparison, Fred managed 91 in the Premier League, with McTominay mustering 182 and Pogba tallying 125.

 

It is no surprise, then, that Ten Hag sees De Jong as a crucial piece of the puzzle.

Getting this deal done and over the line would be a statement of intent, and should provide an ideal platform for United to be shaped in their new manager's image.

Even if doubts remain further up the field, with uncertainty surrounding Cristiano Ronaldo's future, United's midfield has been in need of a major revamp – De Jong provides just that.

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