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Frenkie de Jong was a Barcelona player before he’d even signed for Barcelona. This was, most likely, down to the football education he’d received at Ajax, a club, that just like Barca, is steeped in the principles and values of Johan Cruyff. It was therefore unsurprising when the Catalans made their move for the young midfielder last summer.
It has therefore been perplexing just how out of place De Jong has looked at times during his first season as a Barcelona player. Asked to play in a slightly different position to the one he mastered at Ajax, the 23-year-old has struggled to find his best form. But on Saturday, De Jong was the player so many expected him to be against Napoli.
Barcelona’s performance was a long way from perfect, with Quique Setien’s side particularly edgy towards the end of the second half despite holding a two-goal advantage, but De Jong embodied the best of it. The Dutchman, deployed in the hole between the number six and number eight positions, was the best player on the pitch in blaugrana.
There was an elegance to his display, controlling things in the centre of the pitch not through any great conscious effort, but just because that’s what comes most naturally to him when played in his most natural position. De Jong was Barcelona’s pace setter and playmaker. While he was sometimes left outnumbered, his own individual performance was close to flawless.
So why have Barcelona witnessed this standard of performance so infrequently since paying €75 million to sign De Jong from Ajax last summer? Why has it taken until the last 16 of the Champions League of an extended season for the Catalans to get the best out of the Netherlands international?
The truth is Setien and his coaching staff probably already knew how they would get more out of De Jong. The Dutchman only played in his favoured role against Napoli due to the absence of Sergio Busquets and Arturo Vidal, two players who are considered key, verging on undroppable. De Jong has, for the majority of the season, had to play to their strengths rather than his own, settling into whatever space is left around them - and even playing in a left wing role on occasion.
Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets - Betis-Barcelona - Liga 2019/2020 - Getty Images
Image credit: Getty Images
For all their recent troubles, Barcelona’s squad remains one of the strongest in Europe when it comes to individual talent. There are no bad players at Camp Nou, but the way the squad has been assembled over the last few years has created an unbalanced landscape. De Jong has been a victim of that this season.
Without Busquets and Vidal in the picture, it’s likely De Jong would already be considered a part of Barcelona’s spine, as he was against Napoli. As it is, he might have to wait until these two retire, or at least fade physically, before he can truly take up the position meant for him at Camp Nou.
One of the criticisms made of Setien, and of Ernesto Valverde before him, is that he has failed to move Barcelona into a new generation quickly enough. Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig, for instance, both stayed on the bench against Napoli despite Barca’s desperation for fresh legs and fresh ideas in the second half.
De Jong was signed to be a key part of Barca’s next generation, so should Setien have been bold and dropped Busquets and Vidal for De Jong and Puig more often this season? The Dutchman’s performance on Saturday night hinted at what might have been for the Catalans had they been a bit more bullish in attempting to take a step forward.