Regular Barcelona watchers will recognize the spectacle.
Barcelona struggles in a match, striving to break the opponent’s defense with determination. About an hour later, the fourth official grabbed a plate showing the number 21. Frenkie de Jong swayed wistfully from the field, and the Nou Camp crowd grumbled.
This continues to happen. Prior to Tuesday night’s game at home to Celta Vigo, De Jong had only completed 90 minutes 13 times in 33 matches since Xavi took over as coach last November. The issue was particularly evident during the recent defeats at home to Cadiz and Rayo Vallecano, when the Dutch player whistled as he walked off the bench and Barcelona lost both games 1-0.
Meanwhile, the Catalan press continues to promote the idea that Barcelona are looking to sell the 24-year-old, especially if either of the two Manchester clubs make a big offer this summer.
It is a situation no one expected when Barcelona paid €86m to sign the most promising midfielder in Europe from Ajax in the summer of 2019. But it is now a dilemma facing everyone involved – De Jong himself, Xavi, club president Joan Laporta and sporting director Matteo Alemani. And one without any easy answer.
Debate over how best to use De Jong has raged since he arrived nearly three years ago. Halfway through last season, Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman seemed to find the solution through a more offensive role that had De Jong stormed into the penalty area regularly to either score himself or form his teammates. But that purple spot didn’t last – for any player or coach.
Xavi’s return to the Nou Camp hideout did not resolve the situation. Veteran Sergio Busquets remains elusive at the base of the midfield in the club’s traditional 4-3-3 system. De Jong usually plays in one of the most offensive positions on either side, but he doesn’t often make a big impression, especially compared to younger Pedri and Gavi.
Pedri’s intuitive pass and positioning make the team’s attack more fluid, while Gavi adds energy and a bite that Blaugrana fans and critics really love. De Jong often gets carried away during games, seeming unsure of what exactly he should do. The few times Busquets was assigned as a midfielder did not go well either.
“Frankie is very important,” Chaffee said last month. “He must represent an era at this club. I am happy with him and he has to continue. He has to score goals, help him and be the protagonist of the matches.”
No one doubts that De Jong has the potential for such a character, but that hasn’t happened yet. Moments passed – his 32 games under Xavi scored four goals and three assists. An outstanding performance was off the beaten path at Napoli in the Europa League play-off in February when he culminated in an excellent all-round display with a superb 20-yard strike into the far post.
This was his last goal, and he also had no assists in the last 15 games. With the team’s performance waning after the 4-0 Clasico victory over Madrid in March, the voices of grumbling were more frequent than ever. Whether it is or not, De Jong bears the brunt of the frustration of Barcelona fans when things don’t go well.
Both the player and the coach realize that things are not going well. Xavi’s vision for the team is different from that of his old coach Pep Guardiola, with his ‘inside’ midfielders now being asked to run forward and off the ball. He has provided De Jong with specially edited videos to show him what he wants, especially where to receive the ball and how to communicate with his teammates.
He welcomes this player who throughout his career has loved following his matches to see where he was going wrong, but there is still a nagging sense of disconnection. When asked after the recent 2-1 win over Mallorca on Movistar TV if he feels he has the support of his coach, the answer was short.
“We had a very good conversation,” De Jong said. “The chief said he trusts me. So everyone is happy.”
The tone of voice and facial expressions do not suggest 100 percent satisfaction. He left it open whether the issue is how he is now viewed in the media or within the club.
De Jong was then asked if there was frustration with how Barcelona’s season ended – with no titles and a tense battle to get into the top four and qualify for next season’s Champions League.
He replied, “Yes, very frustrating.” “We haven’t been very good this year, but I hope we can keep improving and next year can be different.”
Around Nou Camp, there are now two broad schools of thought regarding De Jong’s status.
The first is that there is still plenty of time – today he is 25 and he retains the potential and quality to lead the team through the coming seasons. The other is that he never really lived up to the reputation he had upon arrival and it was time to try to recoup as much of the €86m that was spent on him as possible.
Barcelona’s financial situation – their huge debts and struggles to meet La Liga salary rules – is a huge factor in Laporta and Alemany’s thinking.
The club hierarchy could see that it was politically acceptable to sell De Jong. Make money from other players who have a market – Pedri, Gavi, Ronald AraujoAnd Ansu Fati – It would cause a stir among the fans. While those who wish to sell – including Sergino Destneto Martin BraithwaiteAnd Samuel UmtitiMiralem Pjanic Clement Lenglet And Memphis Depay They are less likely to raise the money Barcelona needs this summer. Aston Villa Making Philippe Coutinho’s loan permanent would be a huge help, but it’s far from certain.
De Jong and those around him are well aware of the situation. Last December, his father John told the Dutch newspaper: “I know Barcelona need money and a big offer for Frenkie can help, but I don’t expect that to happen.” It was right after Laporta’s mistake that De Jong had to “step it up” if he wanted to have a long-term future at the club.
After Rayo’s defeat last month, Barcelona technical secretary Jordi Cruyff said on Spanish television that “De Jong is a player that the club and the market value very much”. When asked afterwards to clarify whether this meant a sale was being considered, Cruyff replied: “This is not the moment to talk about these kinds of things. We are here to achieve the club’s goals.”
A lot depends on what also happens. The summer is sure to see more maneuvering and handling as Alemani tries to improve the squad within the constraints of La Liga’s salary cap.
Barcelona will definitely need to sell players as soon as the window opens. If the club offered close to 70 million euros for De Jong, it would be difficult for Laporta and Alemani to refuse. He is also one of the best players on the team, earning around €11 million a year after taxes. The money raised and saved can then be reinvested into other areas of the team that really need strengthening – the full back and the heart – without really compromising the overall quality of the team.
It is noted that although the midfield is the strongest area of the squad, Barcelona have already agreed to sign Ivory Coast international Frank Kessie. Milan On free transfer. They have also considered signing Carlos Soler from Valencia, in a bid to take advantage of the Spain international’s stay just 12 months on his contract for a €20m deal.
“The signatures will depend on the financial resources,” Chaffee said on Monday. “Everything depends on money. This is difficult, but it is our reality. We are clear who we want to leave. The financial situation of the club is holding us back.”
The clubs most likely to be interested and have the funds available to offer De Jong this summer are in Manchester. City have an interest in returning to their Ajax days, and are looking to add a midfielder this summer with Fernandinho’s departure. United are also looking closely at how De Jong is reunited with his old Ajax boss and incoming Old Trafford manager Eric ten Hag.
The most difficult part may be convincing de Jong to leave. Even as he has shown some frustration lately with the things that are going on on the pitch, he has always said he enjoys life in the Catalan capital and wants to stay. Earlier this year, he and his partner bought a new €5 million mansion in the city’s Pedralbes area. He was one of the top players who agreed in 2020 to help the club’s finances by deferring some wages while extending his contract until 2026. A source who knows the dressing room says that convincing him to leave will be difficult, especially for a team that plays for United. The European League at best next season.
So there is no simple solution to any aspect of the problem. It is still possible for Xavi to be the Barcelona coach to finally fit in de Jong to be a key element in the squad. But it’s also conceivable that Laporta and Alemani would look at the numbers and say they want him to go.
(Top image: David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images)