Frenkie de Jong and flexible football

In Frenkie de Jong there’s something we can’t understand, and it annoys us. We like football players that are good, but who are coherent, labelable, measurable as well. That calms our momentum. On the other hand, there are footballers who defy this logic and refuse to be typecast in a position, in a role or in a specific demarcation. We’re terrified we don’t know what they are, because they actually remind us of us, life, and that makes us shiver. But it’s still our turn to analyse them, try to shape them and fit them in, even if doing so is not entirely possible. Frenkie de Jong is signing a brilliant season but a long way from the one he left at that Ajax, when he was aiming to be another footballer. What does De Jong have? Where does Frenkie evolve to April 2021? This is the story of flexible football.

Let’s start by drawing, at great strokes, its evolution. I won’t stop much because you can read this thread that I wrote in November and in which he talked about his first season and what was failing so that, having changed the system to adapt his football and boost it, he would not finish booting. I could extend a lot, but I’m going to sum it up in a couple of notes that I consider vital.

The first is that Frenkie and Busquets couldn’t live together. It wasn’t difficult, it was simply impossible. The Dutchman saw his living space (base of play) buried under Sergio’s legs and who, starting from the left on a double pivot, ended up playing the same as he had done last season; an elevation interior that was not very clear about its routes, its functions or, ultimately, knew how to express its football in a team that typecasts it. De Jong needed a space he couldn’t find, that didn’t exist. Messi’s presence, near the area and falling to the left, began as a limitation, as Frenkie was left in no man’s land. He played well, because he’s very good, but he didn’t really weigh in games. And all of a sudden, these two societies, which seemed to condemn him to the outskirts of the system, empowered him in a strong way.

But first let’s stop and understand who Frenkie is. I don’t think there’s been more consensus on a signing than the Dutchman for FC Barcelona two winters ago. Everything fit together with an unprecedented simplicity, it seemed impossible. And that’s how it proved. But De Jong came as a player-boss of those that the Camp Nou wants, very different because he did not so relate so much from the pass (as well), but from the possession of the leather and his driving. It symbolized a non-disruptive paradigm shift with the ‘culé’ story, a midfielder capable of dominating matches covering a lot of field but always from the bottom up. And that didn’t happen. But Frenkie is so good and has so many resources, he camouflaged it. And as we wondered who De Jong was, the footballer was blurring, because the flexibility is positive, but never definitive. Every player needs to find himself.

Barça changed with De Jong. I would dare to say that, although in reality everything happened at the same time, this order influences the final result a little more. Since January, Barça has been a coherent, recognizable and, to some extent, attractive team. The best football since 2019 has been played in this stretch. And as I said months ago, everything is born inside Koeman. Pedri and De Jong have drawn a completely different scenario that has improved everything. A mirror effect that has achieved two things that I will write about: that Busquets and Frenkie coexist and shine together, in fact it seems that they are needed, and that Messi finds, definitively, De Jong.

Since we like to be right, it takes us a while to get used to its flexibility. We discovered a player much more vertical than we could imagine, an interior related to the ball, yes, but also with space. The right-footed inside De Jong who started to shine in January has scored 15 goals to date in the last three and a half months. More than his previous two seasons together.

“I prefer to play with a double pivot. In a single-pivot system, you have less freedom to move and get the ball. You have to take care of your position. That changes when you have a partner next to you, because in that sense you have more freedom.” De Jong to El País in August 2020.

The reality is that beyond the system change to 4–3–3, De Jong has acted in a pairs game with Busquets at the base, much less invasive and in which both have shared the base of the play. Frenkie is inside only in one phase of the game and, in many, he is a forward, in charge of stretching the team from aggressive, intelligent, measured unchecks. Bamboo football. De Jong is like the protagonist of Shaymalan’s Multiple. Someone who treasures many personalities, some that hatch depending on the split moment of departure. But they all agree on a fateful point. Frenkie doesn’t like to lose the ball. He doesn’t like it at all.

Pass map from Messi to De Jong in League this season (via StatsBomb).

If anything has changed radically from the past course, it’s Messi’s relationship with De Jong. The Argentinian and the Dutch coexisted in a kind of calm tension, barely noticeable. Their games were not enhanced, but simply coexisted. But if we look at the map above we see the huge amount of passes Leo has given Frenkie around the area and, of course, inside. Balls that are normally come from the left sector and Messi is increasingly falling towards that area. That makes De Jong’s diagonal visible that did not exist before. As we saw in the Cup final, Frenkie is a tremendous value for Leo because it gives him depth on the outside if necessary, offers him a point of support on the front when Barça settles on a rival field, a breakout movement if Messi wishes and, ultimately, many solutions that are always born of the contagious will of the Dutchman. The map above does show anything but De Jong’s near-limit flexibility. Leo’s passes find him everywhere.

Comparative radar between last season and the current one (Via StatsBomb)

When Barça, shot down by 1–4 against PSG and their terrible defensive transition, decided to change, De Jong was again the engine of change. It had been before and nothing would prevent it from being it again. And this time delaying his position and giving him the base of the play as libero in a defense of 3. Escorted by two centrals, Frenkie was a value of the highest level to overcome pressure from the driving and not from the pass. His permeability and hyperactivity made him indecipherable. He went down, he opened up, offered uncheck marks in the front line and once the FCB settled on the opponent’s field, he raised the level, in a tide that ate all the opponent’s possibilities. Perhaps his most powerful exhibition was the one in Anoeta.

On the left, a map showing all Frenkie de Jong’s driving in League, on the right a map showing FdJ’s most recurrent driving in League (via GoalAnalysis on Twitter)

The maps show De Jong’s positional evolution. The Dutchman has mutated and changed over the months, as if it were the reverse of the face of Ronald Koeman’s outfit. But if these maps point out something, it is their incipient but already consolidated ability to drive and generate advantages from driving. He is the La Liga midfielder that wins the most meters with his driving and everything makes us think that, at 24 years old, it is only a small sample of what is to come. Barça has needed him as pivot, an interior, a 9, a libero, a center-back. When your football is flexible and expands, you run the risk that the coach will use you to cover all the gaps that appear. And this, roughly, is what has marked his time at Barça to date. It remains to see what happens once the glass ceiling is broken.

De Jong has served Barça to realize his limitations, his mistakes and then relaunch himself, redrawing his horizon of possibilities. The footballer we have been seeing since January, a dominant interior since the deployment, elite driving the ball and showing himself as one of the most efficient passers on the continent, is still a football player under the protection of a higher hierarchy. What player will we have when Messi and Busquets have given up? The question is exciting because there is not a single answer, but it branches and expands. De Jong’s power transcends position. He is a midfielder in the most truest sense of the word, and, in short, his evolution and his conversion to the interior position with a route have given FC Barcelona possibilities that, without him, they did not exist, it is that they did not imagine.

There’s a play that condenses his change, which brings to light that hidden football that no one imagined he had. Attached here and here two tweets with two plays from two different matches that followed the same route: Frenkie’s robbery in rival field, driving and after filling the area, finishing with a header. They were against Real Sociedad and Athletic Club in Super Cup and Cup respectively. De Jong can be many different footballers, even within the same play.

Everything refers to us. Because we suffer from an evil that is as common as it is dangerous: the player is such we imagine and perceive him. That is to say, if we believe that De Jong must be, for example, an interior of possession, that plays with one touch and does not drive, the Dutch will become this in our heads, and everything that departs from that initial perception does not seem good to us, or yes, but away from its best version, one that only exists in us. Frenkie has been uncovered as something we did not even intuit, suddenly he scores goals, reaches the area, runs without the ball. It puts us to the test. Between all of us is to imagine it and rethink it as what it can be or, on the other hand, surrender to what it already is.

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Periodista. Escribo para sobrevivir. Un poco de todo. Fútbol y lo que se de.

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Albert Blaya Sensat

Albert Blaya Sensat

Periodista. Escribo para sobrevivir. Un poco de todo. Fútbol y lo que se de.

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