Frenkie De Jong: The Mistimed Barcelona Protoype

Frenkie De Jong signed for Barcelona from an inspirational Ajax side in 2019. The Dutch midfielder had fantastically pulled the strings from the middle of the park, as Erik Ten Hag’s side reached the semi-finals of the Champions League. Few could argue against the hefty 75 million euros that exchanged hands to complete the signing.

This is because a single thought ran through the minds of Cules across the world: FC Barcelona had finally found their Sergio Busquets replacement. Frenkie De Jong had excelled in the defensive midfield role for Ajax, while ably alternating as a center-back or even a playmaker. In particular, De Jong’s wizardly display at the Santiago Bernabeu convinced the world of his talent and ability.

On the other hand, Sergio Busquets seemed to be losing prominence under Ernesto Valverde. The Spanish manager sacrificed his side’s midfield structure to accommodate an aging Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi into his line-up. While this actually brought out the best of Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets suffered.

The 2012 Euro winner was left with the impossible task of covering the space ahead of his center-backs, as the rest of the midfield bent their shape to cover for Messi and Suarez’s minimal defensive output.

What Can We Make Of Frenkie De Jong At FC Barcelona?

Over three years after the signing, both Frenkie De Jong and FC Barcelona are in quite a different state altogether.

FC Barcelona have rediscovered their reliance on Sergio Busquets. Under Xavi, Sergio Busquets has been reinstituted as the focal point of the team’s system. Currently 34, Busquets remains almost indispensable to his manager and the team. The defensive midfielder could be headed out in 2023, but FC Barcelona are no closer to ably replacing him.

On the other hand, Frenkie De Jong has struggled to find his natural role under 4 different managers at the Camp Nou. While De Jong has been a consistent and reliable option for Barcelona, he has struggled to churn out performances of the same quality that he achieves with the Dutch National Team.

And De Jong has ultimately been offered as the sacrificial lamb in exchange for FC Barcelona’s ambitious summer overhaul. Much against his own will, the midfielder continuously finds himself linked to almost every top club not named FC Barcelona.

In particular, links to Chelsea FC and Manchester United have been persistent. In recent days, the addition of a legal twist has added unnecessary spice to the already overcooked saga.

Let us try to dodge the pestering news on where Frenkie De Jong’s future lies, and instead turn our focus to WHY exactly he never really worked at Barcelona.

Whatever way we try to frame it, Frenkie De Jong’s signing boils down to one single motive: to replace Busquets adequately and effectively.

Sergio Busquets: Immeasurable, Inimitable, Irreplaceable?

However, we must understand that replacing Sergio Busquets is a two-layered task. Barcelona need to replace not only “Sergio Busquets” the player, but also “Sergio Busquets” the profile. And since his inception with the first team under Guardiola in 2008, the lines between the two layers have gradually blurred, becoming instead one tangled, complex, and annoyingly important motor to Barcelona’s engine.

Sergio Busquets the player, clearly possessed unnatural talent detectable as early as in 2008. Pep Guardiola saw it first, detecting traces of himself in his new La Masia graduate.

And the Spaniard quickly clamped down his place in the side, pushing out Yaya Toure in the process. For over a decade since Sergio Busquets has been an invaluable asset for FC Barcelona. After Guardiola, the likes of Tito Villanova, Tata Martino, Luis Enrique, Ernesto Valverde, Quique Setien, Ronald Koeman and now, Xavi Hernandez have all structured their midfield around the same catalyst.

In 630 games for the Blaugranes, Sergio Busquets has only 15 goals and 35 assists (according to fbref.com). Indeed, goalscoring and creation remains the least important part of the 34-year-old’s game. Busquets acts as the anchor for the team, in possession and off the ball.

The Spaniard is always dropping in between the lines to receive possession and progress the ball. Busquets has also mastered the skill of taking an additional touch to attract pressure, and then find a teammate in space.

Off the ball too, Busquets acts as the reference point for the team. The Spaniard maintains the optimal distance between his center-backs and midfielders; ready to jump up and commit a challenge higher up, or sit deeper and invite runners as the situation requires.

It is safe to say that Sergio Busquets is the only player in the history of the sport of his profile. This is because few players can offer both;

i.   the quality to ignite, control and dictate the team’s speed and tempo in possession

ii.  the awareness and intelligence to halt or stall the opposition from exposing their defensive line.

Some players; including Frenkie De Jong, Manuel Locatelli etc. are adept at driving the ball out from the back. Others, like Boubacar Kamara, act as an effective shield to their defence.

However, no player is tasked with both responsibilities, and no manager is willing to assign such responsibilities onto a single shoulder.

This means, FC Barcelona can continue their expansive search for a Sergio Busquets replacement, but may never find a proper answer. Instead, the transition may require a change in the team’s structure altogether, as an addition to a new signing.

In conclusion, Frenkie De Jong’s inability to emulate Sergio Busquets is not the fault of the individual alone. Rather, it is a glaring failure on the part of FC Barcelona’s recruitment to realize that football, as a game itself, has evolved beyond the use of a lone defensive pivot anymore. Teams like Arsenal, Bayern Munich and Liverpool are demonstrating interesting variations to adapt to the acute shortage or absence of the “Sergio Busquets” profile in the market.

And it’s about time FC Barcelona does the same too.