The year is 2018 and we're in December. This is pre a global pandemic and when football was still basking in the glory of normalcy and completely unaware of what was about to hit them less than eighteen months later.
Ajax had just qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League, going unbeaten in their group while winning every game barring three. Next up, however, was Real Madrid in little over two months and few gave the Eredivisie side any chance in hell. Come D-day and the world watches, arguably, one of the greatest underdog performances in football’s modern era. Real won the first leg 2-1 but Ajax taught the three-peat winners a lesson in footballing brilliance in the second at the jam-packed Santiago Bernabeu.
It finished 4-1 and while Dusan Tadic will go down in history with arguably one of the great individual performances, it was Frenkie de Jong that caught the eye just as much. Just 21 years old and playing against one of ‘the’ midfield trios in footballing history, De Jong didn’t look a touch out of place. If anything, as he twirled and danced around Luka Modric, Casemiro, and Toni Kroos, one begins to wonder if the three looked out of place instead as modern football found its new messiah.
I really think he is a revelation. You might laugh, but he is a better version of Franz Beckenbauer. People must interpret that properly. What I really mean is that he also has speed and passes easily. That's an enormous weapon.
Here he was, a barely 5’10 lean blonde midfielder but effortlessly treating the ball like his best friend as he glided across the football pitch, running up and down the field with the ball leading the way just because he could. It had many many believing that he was the second coming, especially those who remember and watched Der Kaiser in his prime, of the German legend himself alongside a certain Dutch one too. Because at that moment in time, De Jong was a one-man progressive machine, treating football like a video game.
Nobody could stop him, not Real Madrid’s legendary midfield trio, not Juventus’ hardened veterans, and not even Tottenham’s frantic pressing team. While Spurs would end up beating Ajax thanks to a heart-breaking final kick of the ball, De Jong still walked away from that game as arguably the best player on the field. It was downright breath-taking and the fact that this 21-year-old was doing all this not while playing as a central midfielder or even as a number 10, but as the deepest midfielder was even more impressive.
He even did it, quite often, as a center-back for Ajax alongside Matthijs de Ligt and his fearlessness combined with his elite ability to move the ball up the field without a care in world paved the way for so much potential and a lot of hype. But that, much like a lot of things since then, was four long years ago and before that move to Barcelona. It was touted to be ‘the move’ as Frenkie was ‘the’ perfect replacement for Sergio Busquets and at that time, he was.
But Busquets’ late revival combined with Barcelona’s severe incompetence, the fact that they’ve had four managers with different tactical approaches and alongside all the other stuff has not helped the now 25-year-old find his groove. Because right now, the modern game doesn’t just ask but demands that players be exceptionally great at nearly everything. That especially goes for midfielders and in 2018 and at Ajax, De Jong showed that he could do just that.
The 2022 Frenkie de Jong is no longer the kid that many believed could change football and be a player you could simply plug into a team, and watch him completely transform their landscape while elevating everyone around him. It's someone that Manchester United could so very desperately use right now and given their appointment of Erik ten Hag, ‘that De Jong’ would tick a lot of boxes. But unfortunately, as the saga drags on and United inch closer toward a deal with Barcelona, they won’t get that.
Instead, what they’ll get is someone who they wanted Paul Pogba to be, an excellent progressor of the football from deep midfield. Much like Pogba, De Jong was a mind-bending entity and someone who could do everything. It meant that when United signed Pogba, they didn’t need a defensive midfielder because he could not only score and create goals but defend like a top-level defender. That changed at United because while his offensive output remained, more or less, the same, his defensive output was non-existent.
At Barcelona, De Jong has gone through a similar change as his offensive output remains the same and/or has improved but his defensive output has more or less disappeared completely. He ranked, over the last year according to FbRef, in the 3rd percentile for pressures, 8th for tackles, and 10th for interceptions. All that it means is that signing Frenkie de Jong won’t solve every problem that Manchester United have but to fix that, United are in dire need of a deeper cleanse.
We're not talking a juice cleanse or three-day salad diet or some boogie fad like that but a proper deep cleanse that starts at the very core.
It’s one that started from the moment Ed Woodward left with Richard Arnold replacing him alongside John Murtough in a Sporting Director/Football director role. Together the two need to solve and fix Manchester United which, much like Barcelona, has been broken for just under a decade aka ever since Sir Alex Ferguson left. The fact that the Scot was holding the club together almost by himself is testament to his legacy but the way the team has crumbled despite a few good spells needs to change.
So far, the duo have made the smart moves while also betting on Erik ten Hag which is proven by the charge for De Jong alongside a few others. But there needs to be more. Paul Pogba’s failure to succeed at Manchester United wasn’t just down to him but that responsibility was shared by the club and the player. His obvious success at France can be put down to having N’Golo Kante alongside him but that could have been replicated at United and now they have the chance to right their wrongs should the move go through for FDJ.
Even if the ability to kick-start a footballing revolution no longer exists in De Jong, there is ample potential and talent left in the 25-year-old. Mainly because he was part of a team at Barcelona where they had absolutely no clue who to sign and why they were signing them. That seems to have changed under Xavi as he ushers them into a new era and in another world, De Jong would be a key component of that era and potentially could be spearheading it.
Frenkie De Jong is likely off to Manchester United.— Simon (@analytic_footy) June 29, 2022
What will he bring? Superb ball progressor, and gives you decent output in the final actions too. But he absolutely is not anywhere close to the DM they also need. pic.twitter.com/QKUihOabtX
However, in this world, he still is a key component of the era but he just happens to be the cash cow who could help bring in the building blocks. Yet for Manchester United, this is the chance they’ve been asking for. Another era defining player, one who could potentially transform their landscape but one that probably can no longer do it all on his own. However, pair Frenkie de Jong with the right pieces and you get a team capable of challenging the best of the best with a manager who looks like he knows what he is doing.
That comes especially on the back of reports that Ten Hag believes that this is a five-year project. That more than anything else is a sensible thought partly because United doesn’t have the City-esque spending or planning capacity while getting almost every transfers right like Liverpool is luck that the Red Devils have rarely had over the last decade or so. But pairing De Jong with the right pieces shouldn’t be tough especially since Ten Hag is a malleable coach who bends with the team he has and then slowly evolves them from there.
This means that it’s all up to Manchester United; either help the two Dutchmen thrive or leave them floundering for air and struggling to survive. It should be an easy decision.