Managerial changes, ‘lies’ and flashes of brilliance: Will things work out for De Jong at Barcelona?

It’s been over five years since former Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu boarded a flight to the Netherlands to close the signing of Ajax Amsterdam midfielder Frenkie de Jong.

De Jong, now 26, was one of Europe’s most in-demand midfielders. He had fielded phone calls from Paris Saint-Germain coach Thomas Tuchel and Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola, leaving Barça afraid they would miss out on the prodigious Dutch international. In the end, Bartomeu’s trip helped finalise a transfer worth an initial €75 million that was officially announced on Jan. 23, 2019, ahead of a full move that summer.

There have been over 200 appearances, one LaLiga title, four managers, one interim coach and many ups and downs since. At times, De Jong has looked like the generational midfielder Barça were so desperate to sign. In other moments, while his quality has never been in doubt, there have been arguments about his best role and whether he suits the team’s style.

It’s fair to say the chaos that has engulfed Barça on and off the pitch hasn’t created a prosperous environment. The turmoil even led to the club considering an offer from Manchester United for him in the summer of 2022 as a fix to its financial problems, even though he wanted to stay. Tension followed, with De Jong upset at his contract being leaked in the media and Barça — now under a different club president, with Joan Laporta taking the reins for a second time — even suggesting they could take legal action over the contract renewal he signed when Bartomeu was still president in 2020.

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A truce followed, De Jong won his place back in the side after that tricky summer of 2022, and he is now one of the team’s four captains. However, with last season’s title defence in tatters, coach Xavi Hernández stepping down at the end of the campaign and Barça still struggling financially, the Spanish media is filled with reports nudging De Jong towards a potential exit — and he is far from happy about it.

Ahead of Wednesday’s Champions League round-of-16 first leg match with Napoli, the former Ajax man held nothing back in an explosive news conference. He said he was angry and irritated by the lies about his future, his earnings and his contract situation, asking the local media present if they are not ashamed of their fake stories. “This has to stop,” he pleaded.

It has made De Jong — who still insists he is happy at “the club of my dreams” despite the noise — his future and his place at Barça front and centre of the conversation once again.

As a fresh-faced 21-year-old, De Jong was one of the stars of the Ajax team that made the Champions League semifinal in 2019, losing to Tottenham. His coolness and capacity to carry the ball from defence into attack, along with his ability to pick a pass, meant Europe’s top clubs were queuing up to sign him. In the end, it came down to PSG and Barça.

“Through his agent, Frenkie had reached an agreement with PSG,” Bartomeu tells ESPN. “[Barça’s sporting directors at the time] Pep Segura, Eric Abidal and Ramón Planes told me he was going to Paris, that he was already looking for a house and there was not much we could do.

“PSG played their cards well. They had been good with Frenkie, but Barça could be very persuasive. Despite [coach] Ernesto Valverde not phoning him, when other coaches did, we changed things by going direct to the agents. I noticed they had been somewhat angry with Barça, but after a few days of talking, things changed.”

De Jong’s father, John, himself a former semi-professional footballer, is a big fan of the Johan Cruyff school of football that’s been perfected by Barça and Ajax. Bartomeu leaned on that fandom, and also used Neymar’s world-record €222 million transfer to PSG to his advantage, implying that there was genuine regret at his exit.

“Frenkie’s father was also in the talks,” the former Barça chief continues. “He knew more than anyone the role that Barça would have for Frenkie and we were able to explain that the philosophy goes beyond any coach. Frenkie’s dad is a Cruyffista and both parents understood their son would be better off in Barcelona than anywhere else.

“One of the things I always said to Frenkie was to look at what happened to Neymar in Paris at that time. I told him that both Neymar and his father were asking me to come back to Barcelona.”

In the end, it felt like an obvious fit: One of the most talented youngsters in the game treading the Amsterdam to Barcelona path that has been so symbolic in football history since Cruyff first made it as a player in 1973. Yet things did not instantly fall into place.

Reports in the Netherlands claimed Barça coach Valverde (2017-2020) had not been sold on the signing. De Jong had played mostly in a “double pivot” midfield at Ajax, and Valverde preferred a lone pivot in Sergio Busquets, with twin No. 8s ahead of him. Sources told ESPN the majority of the Barça hierarchy viewed De Jong as a player for the present and the future, someone capable of playing a variety of midfield roles, shaping the team post-Xavi and Andres Iniesta — who were two of the best ever to play the position — and possibly being Busquets’ long-term heir.

One thing everyone tells you about De Jong is that he’s incredibly self-critical. That was apparent in his first preseason. He complained about Barça’s performance in a friendly defeat to Chelsea, and after being named player of the match in the Joan Gamper Trophy win over Arsenal, he said his display did not deserve the award. “We have to move the ball quicker and press better when we lose it,” he analysed.

Those high standards were seen on the pitch in De Jong’s first few months at the club. There was an abundance of youthful energy, but Barça’s way of playing under Valverde was being questioned; he was under scrutiny for making the team more solid than exciting despite winning back-to-back league titles. He sometimes reverted to a midfield four, with De Jong featuring alongside Busquets, Arturo Vidal and Ivan Rakitic.

By January, Valverde was dismissed, ending a run of stability that Barça had enjoyed for a decade. It was not the dream start for De Jong, and it set the tone for four years of upheaval.

While De Jong remained a regular under Valverde’s replacement, Quique Setién (2020), things only got worse for the club. His first season in Barcelona, disrupted by the COVID pandemic, ended trophy-less and with that infamous 8-2 defeat Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarterfinal. “Today showed we have a lot of problems in the team,” De Jong said afterward. “We have to change many things.”

As the debate about how to get the best from De Jong continued, Setién, who was sacked following that Bayern game after just eight months in charge, goes slightly against the grain. He feels De Jong performs better alone if he’s the deepest midfielder, in contrast to many who feel he needs someone alongside him. The latter camp includes Xavi, who always used Busquets before his move to Inter Miami CF. More proof came when Barcelona signed Oriol Romeu to complement De Jong last summer, while Xavi also continued to seek a top-level defensive midfielder until announcing his own exit this summer.

“Coaching Frenkie was an extraordinary experience,” Setién tells ESPN. “I was struck by his willingness to improve concepts. We analysed his position as an interior midfielder [No. 8] a lot during the time we were together. His understanding of the game, the pausa, when to stop, accelerate, etc. … He was always very receptive, he always asked for more.

“He is very versatile, he can play in different positions with a high performance. As the deepest midfielder, he is very effective, perhaps better alone than in a double pivot. He covers a lot of ground. A lack of verticality is compensated for by an extraordinary ability to carry the ball, which allows him to break lines easily.

“Without a doubt, he plays better when he is facing the game.”

Another former coach told ESPN he believes De Jong is both underrated and misunderstood. The problem, he said, is that people in Spain expect him to be producing assists and goals akin to “someone like Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne,” also pointing out that the local media often demand he do more to run games. While that might be a slight exaggeration, Setién agrees De Jong is a much different player.

“He can play well in any position, but it is obvious that he is not a differential No. 10 full of talent to solve things in tight spaces with passes or goals,” he adds. “He is a good midfielder who can get forward, but he also defends extraordinarily well, covers a lot of ground and does not lose the ball. He is complete in everything, humble and honest.”

Ronald Koeman (2020-21), a legend at Barça as a player, was next in the door, becoming De Jong’s third coach at Camp Nou in a year. More interesting in terms of the management of De Jong, though, was the decision to bring in Alfred Schreuder as his No. 2.

Schreuder had worked with De Jong at Ajax when he was Erik ten Hag’s assistant, and sources say De Jong had been fond of him as a coach.

“The most impressive thing was that he was a player who could play as a centre-back, a No. 6 or a No. 8 and in every position he was very good,” Schreuder tells ESPN of his first impression of De Jong at Ajax. “He was defensively strong one-on-one, very good with the ball and he could beat players as a midfielder — and it’s not so easy as a midfielder to beat players and also be able to defend one-on-one so well. For me, his quality was exceptional in the part of dominating the ball and dominating the opposition in one-on-one situations.

“When I came to Barcelona, he had been there for a year. For me, in his personality and his lifestyle, he was now living with his girlfriend, there was development. He grew up, he was stronger in everything, because it’s a higher league. In general, he had developed as a person and as a player.”

Under Koeman, De Jong showed a marked improvement in the final third, especially during the early months of 2021 when he scored five goals in 11 games (all competitions) and another in the Copa del Rey final win over Athletic Club — his first trophy in Blaugrana — as he appeared to be finding a home under his compatriot. That run of form was not sustained in part because he paid for his versatility, with the team’s injury problems forcing him elsewhere.

“In that period, Koeman put him as a right-sided No. 8 and he was very good because he was scoring goals,” Schreuder remembers. “Koeman wanted him to penetrate more, to get in the box and have more opportunities to score. But, also at that time, sometimes he played as a centre-back — for example a game in Paris — and also as a No. 6 or No. 8 next to Busquets.

“He’s an all-round midfielder. For me, his best position is No.6/8, but more like a No. 8 who can drop out as a No. 6 and speed up the game … or even a double No. 6 and in a free role with the ball. He dominates the areas where he is playing and is tactically a very good player.”

Any possible sense of stability soon disappeared. Barça threw away the chance to win LaLiga after working their way back into the title race, and Koeman was sacked in October of that year. Xavi, after Sergi Barjuán’s brief spell as interim coach, replaced him to become De Jong’s fourth different manager in three years.

Xavi (2021-2024) has always praised De Jong given the opportunity, but at the end of 2021-22, there was a run of games where his actions spoke louder than words. The emergence of Pedri and Gavi, and the perception that they were a better collective fit for Barça’s midfield, led to a run of 11 LaLiga games in which De Jong completed 90 minutes only once. He was an unused substitute once, came on in another fixture for 23 minutes and was taken off early in the remaining eight matches.

There were moments when you could sense his frustration as he trudged off the pitch, and that tension set up the drama around his future the following summer.

With Man United (now managed by De Jong’s former Ajax boss, Erik Ten Hag) and Chelsea (to a lesser extent) both interested, Barça sensed an opportunity. President Laporta had inherited the club with huge cash problems and transferring De Jong would have provided a fix, in addition to the financial levers Barça activated that year, for two reasons: firstly, because he would have commanded a fee of up to €100m and, secondly, because it would have eliminated his salary from the wage bill.

De Jong is one of the club’s biggest earners after reducing his wage during the pandemic — an agreement signed with the previous board in 2020 — on the basis he would be gradually re-compensated in the latter years of his contract, which runs until 2026.

Xavi never said he wanted De Jong to leave for football reasons, but because of the doubts about his exact role and the club’s need to strengthen elsewhere, he never completely shut the door on the idea. Things turned ugly as De Jong — who loves his life in Barcelona, where he lives with his fiancée, Mikky Kiemeney, and their son, Miles, who was born at the end of 2023 — refused to move despite Barça agreeing the rough outline of a fee with United.

Barça then leaked the details of his 2020 renewal. The club then even threatened legal action, saying the contract was not legal, which led to tension between De Jong’s camp and the club. Sources close to De Jong say they were never worried about the legality of the agreement, and nothing ever came of the threat. For his part, De Jong assigns responsibility for those difficult months to the club’s hierarchy.

“One day, a paper published my contract details,” he said. “I didn’t leak it, and only one other party knew [the details], so it had to be the club who did this. Then, suddenly, there was a letter in which the question was asked whether my contract was still valid because the previous president made the contract. I found it annoying that the club did this.”

De Jong spent the preseason tour in 2022 mainly playing as a centre-back, as he had done at times earlier in his career, as the debate about his future and position continued. He was a substitute in three of Barcelona’s first four LaLiga games, but once the transfer window closed and injuries set in, he reclaimed his place. A first LaLiga title followed to go with the Spanish Supercopa also won under Xavi.

Results have spiralled this season, and so it feels like déjà vu: there is a huge cloud over Barça, the way they are playing, just how good they are and what their best midfield should be. Despite that, De Jong remains a key part of the team. There was already a clear upward trajectory in his numbers last season, but this year they have taken another leap forward, stimulated by the space vacated by Busquets.

After Xavi decided Romeu, a €3.5m signing from Girona, was not up to scratch, De Jong has been often deployed as Barça’s deepest midfielder — the role many thought he was signed to fill. He often has Ilkay Gündogan dropping in alongside him, but in general, Gundogan, Pedri, Gavi, Sergi Roberto and Fermín López — depending on fitness and/or availability — are ahead of him in the depth chart. As a result, nearly everything is now built through De Jong, who was voted one of the team’s four captains by his peers in the summer and is raved about by teammates and opponents.

Defender João Cancelo says he is the player who has made the biggest impact on him this season in terms of quality. “Watch him train, and you realise there is something different about him,” he said.

Gavi says he is the player he “most admires,” while Pedri told ESPN: “I enjoy football more when Frenkie is next to me. He rarely loses the ball. When he’s not there, I miss him a lot.” Opponents notice it too: Barbastro’s Arnau Fábrega said after January’s Copa del Rey meeting that “De Jong plays another game. He is on another level.”

“Everyone loves to have Frenkie around them involved in the build-up,” former Barça teammate Martin Braithwaite, now at Espanyol, tells ESPN. “No matter if he has a man on his back, you can always give him the ball and he will find a way to get out of tight spaces and pressure because of his personality.

“He is laid-back, but so disciplined and determined to always get better. In training, he is one of those players that always plays with 100% intensity in everything he does. That’s what makes him special. He is always giving 100% both in matches and training.

“It’s funny because he shows so much character and personality on the pitch when he’s playing, that you would think he’s the same kind of personality outside the pitch, but he’s very humble and laid-back. He doesn’t want any attention actually, yet naturally on the pitch he takes all the attention with the way he plays, so calm and with so much confidence, trying to control the game.”

De Jong is averaging 108.31 touches per 90 minutes in LaLiga, the most by a Barça midfielder in a single campaign since Xavi in 2013-14 (minimum 900 minutes played). He ranks second in LaLiga in that statistic, behind only Real Madrid’s Toni Kroos. To put that in context, De Jong ranked 43rd as recently as the 2021-22 season, and 13th out of Barça players who played more than 500 minutes in the league that season.

With those touches, he is averaging 87.73 completed passes per 90 minutes in the league at a success rate of 93%. Those numbers have never previously been above 75 or 92% and again, only Kroos completes more.

Yet when you watch De Jong, you don’t think of him as a pass-master in the style of his coach, Xavi; you think about what Setién says about the way he carries the ball. You think about that turn and run past Luka Modric on the edge of his own box for Ajax in the 2019 Champions League. You think about how Xavi purrs about his ability to “dividir” — basically break through lines.

“He is perhaps the only player at Barça capable of [those runs], while his level of athleticism is unmatched by the other midfielders,” one former coach told ESPN.

De Jong is averaging 73.12 ball carries in LaLiga per 90 minutes this season, ranking second in the league. That is up from 66.3 last season, and 25 more carries per 90 than the 48.55 he averaged in 2021-22. It is so often a huge weapon for Barça when the free man cannot be found.

Off the ball, his numbers are also better than ever. He is making 7.54 recoveries per 90 minutes, up from 5.58 in ’21-22. That ranks him 23rd in LaLiga for winning possession back — he has never previously breached the top 30 and was as low as 136th across ’21-22.

De Jong, in some ways, has benefitted from Busquets’ exit, but he is also now in the peak years of his career. Big names have gone since he joined (Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez, Gerard Piqué, Jordi Alba, Busquets) and there have been moments of tension, but he should be considered one of the figureheads of an emerging generation including Pedri, Gavi and Lamine Yamal.

Despite all that, the feeling remains inside the club that De Jong is more expendable than other players due to his market value and salary. His improved statistics have been lost in Barça’s dreadful start to 2024. They have exited the Spanish Supercopa and the Copa del Rey, fallen 10 points off the pace in LaLiga and conceded five times against Villarreal, four against Real Madrid and Athletic Club, three against Granada and two against Real Betis and Barbastro.

Those problems in defence, transitions and pressing have seen Xavi once again bring in protection at the base of the midfield, with centre-back Andreas Christensen pushed into a more advanced role. De Jong is not to blame for Barça’s problems — it’s a collective issue — but those issues do reopen the debate about his suitability.

It has also made him easy clickbait, with various reports surfacing over the past two weeks that Barça will look to move him again this summer if he refuses to sign a new deal that either defers part of his salary or reduces it. That all came to the fore in Tuesday’s remarkable news conference on the eve of a huge Champions League game.

Sources close to the player have always pointed out that, with over two years to run on his contract, he is calm and has complete control over his future, but it all became too much. De Jong slammed reports he earns €40m annually — “a long way from it” — ripped into media “inventions” and implored the press to stop lying.

Yet despite any problems he may have with the club’s hierarchy or the treatment he has received from the media, he remains keen to stay put. “I consider the club to be my teammates, the dressing room, the people I work with, the staff,” he said. “That’s all great, 10/10. I am enjoying myself a lot. I hope to stay here for many years.”

However, Xavi’s responses to questions about De Jong and Gavi possibly leaving this summer were telling before the Feb. 17 game at Celta Vigo. The outgoing Barça boss said Gavi “has to stay and is the future of the club.” On De Jong, he classified him as an “important player” but said anything beyond this season “depends on him and the club.” He repeated that comment on Tuesday after supporting De Jong’s complaints about the media.

Asked about De Jong’s form last week, Xavi had said: “A lack of consistency has marked our season. That goes for players and coaches and he is no exception.” This is where it gets confusing.

No sources at the club will rule out the departure of De Jong this summer. However, there is also an awareness that the new coach (whoever it is) will likely want De Jong as part of the team. He still has a huge reputation in European football and, as sporting director Deco seeks to better equip the team for the modern game, De Jong is seen as one of the players who has the athleticism and the physicality to thrive. Sources add that the balancing act between the club’s financial needs and the team’s sporting needs is a difficult one to manage. Some difficult decisions might be required.

In many ways, it’s back to square one. Sources say, with Barça needing to raise money this summer, the new coach will hopefully also have a role in deciding which players are dispensable. Is De Jong more important than a new left winger or a holding midfielder? Would they rather part with De Jong than Jules Koundé, Ronald Araújo, Andreas Christensen or Raphinha? These are questions that still need to be answered.

The only thing that is certain here is that with each passing season, De Jong has less time left at Barça than he did when Bartomeu boarded that plane five years ago. His legacy at the club is still to be defined.

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