Regular Barcelona watchers will recognize the scene.
Barca are struggling in a game, stubbornly trying to break their opponents in defence. Around the hour mark, the fourth referee held up a sign reading the number 21. Frenkie de Jong sadly walked off the pitch and the Nou Camp crowd groaned.
It keeps happening. Ahead of Tuesday night’s home game against Celta Vigo, De Jong had completed just 90 minutes 13 times in 33 appearances since Xavi took over as coach last November. The problem was particularly glaring in recent home defeats to Cadiz and Rayo Vallecano, when the Dutchman was whistled by fans as he headed for the bench and Barca lost both games 1-0.
Meanwhile, the Catalan press continues to push the idea that Barca are looking to sell the 24-year-old, especially if either Manchester club makes a big offer this summer.
It’s a situation no one expected when Barca paid 86 million euros to sign Europe’s most promising midfielder from Ajax in the summer of 2019. But it’s now a dilemma facing everyone involved – De Jong himself, Xavi, club president Joan Laporta and sporting director Mateu. Germany. And one with no easy answers.
The debate over how best to use De Jong has raged since his arrival almost three years ago. Midway through last season, it looked like Barca coach Ronald Koeman had found the solution with a more attacking role that saw De Jong regularly stepping into the box to score himself or set up teammates. But this purple stain did not last, neither for the player nor for the coach.
Xavi’s return to the Camp Nou dugout didn’t resolve the situation. Veteran Sergio Busquets remains untouchable at the base of midfield in the club’s traditional 4-3-3 system. De Jong usually plays in one of the more attacking positions on either side but doesn’t often make a big impression, especially compared to youngsters Pedri and Gavi.
Pedri’s intuitive passing and positioning make the team’s attack much smoother, while Gavi adds an energy and bite that Blaugrana fans and pundits really love. De Jong drifts through games more often, seeming unsure of what exactly he should be doing. The few times he replaced Busquets as a midfielder didn’t go well either.
“Frenkie is very important,” Xavi said last month. “He should mark an era in this club. I am happy with him and he must continue. He must score goals, assist and be the protagonist of the matches.
Nobody doubts that De Jong has the capacity for such a leading role, but it hasn’t happened yet. There have been times – his 32 games under Xavi have yielded four goals and three assists. The standout performance was at Napoli in the Europa League play-offs in February when he capped an excellent all-around display with a fine 20-yard strike curled inside the far post.
It was his last goal, and he hasn’t had any assists in his last 15 appearances either. As the team’s form waned after March’s 4-0 Clasico win over Madrid, the grumbling grew louder. Enough or not, De Jong bears the brunt of Barca fans’ frustration when things don’t go well.
The player and the coach are aware that things are not working perfectly. Xavi’s vision for the team is different to that of his former manager Pep Guardiola, with ‘inside’ midfielders now being asked to run further from the ball. He provided De Jong with specially edited videos to show what he wants, especially where to receive the ball and how to connect with his teammates.
This is welcomed by a player who throughout his career has enjoyed watching his own games to see where he went wrong, but there is still a lingering sense of disconnect. When asked after the recent 2-1 win over Mallorca on Movistar TV if he felt he had his manager’s backing, the answer was short.
“We had a very good conversation,” De Jong said. “The boss said he trusts me. So everyone is happy.”
The tone of voice and facial expression did not suggest 100% contentment. It was left open whether the question was how he is now perceived in the media or within the club.
De Jong was then asked if there was any frustration with Barca ending the season – without trophies and a nervous battle to make the top four and make the Champions League next season.
“Yes, very frustrating,” he replied. “We haven’t been good this year, but hopefully we will continue to improve and next year can be different.”
Around the Nou Camp, there are now two major schools of thought regarding De Jong’s situation.
The first is that there is still time – he is 25 today and retains the potential and quality to lead the team in the coming seasons. The other is that he never lived up to the reputation he had when he arrived, and now is the time to try and recoup as much as possible of the €86m spent on him.
Barca’s financial situation – their huge debts and difficulties in meeting La Liga wage rules – is also a big factor in Laporta and Alemany’s thinking.
The club’s hierarchy can see it’s politically acceptable to sell De Jong. Taking advantage of other players who have a market – Pedri, Gavi, Ronald Araujo, Ansu Fati – would cause an uproar among the fans. While those they would like to sell – including Sergino Dest, Neto, Martin Braithwaite, Samuel Umtiti, Miralem Pjanic, Clement Lenglet and Memphis Depay – are less likely to raise the kind of money Barca need this summer. Aston Villa making Philippe Coutinho’s loan permanent would be a big help, but that’s far from certain.
De Jong and his entourage are well aware of the situation. In December, his father John told Dutch publication AD that: “I know Barcelona need the money and a big offer for Frenkie could help, but I don’t see that happening.” This was right after Laporta blurted out that De Jong ‘needs to step up’ if he wants to have a long-term future at the club.
After Rayo’s defeat last month, Barcelona’s technical secretary Jordi Cruyff told Spanish television that “De Jong is a player who is highly valued by the club and the market”. When then asked to clarify whether that meant a sale was being considered, Cruyff replied, “Now is not the time to talk about such things. We are here to fulfill the objectives of the club.
A lot depends on what else is going on. The summer is sure to see plenty more twists and deals as Alemany tries to improve the squad within La Liga’s salary cap.
Barca will definitely have to sell players once the window opens. If a club offered something like €70m for De Jong, it would be difficult for Laporta and Alemany to refuse. He is also one of the best earners in the team, earning around €11m a year after tax. The money collected and saved could then be reinvested in other areas of the squad that really need strengthening – full-back and centre-forward – without really hurting the overall quality of the squad.
It’s worth noting that while the midfield is arguably the strongest area of the squad, Barca have already agreed to bring Ivory Coast international Franck Kessie from Milan on a free transfer. They have also considered signing Carlos Soler from Valencia, trying to take advantage of the fact that the Spain international has just 12 months left on his contract to complete a €20m deal.
“Signings will depend on finances,” Xavi said on Monday. “It all depends on the money. It’s hard, but it’s our reality. We clearly know who we want to leave. The financial situation of the club conditions us.
The clubs most likely to be interested and with the money available to offer for De Jong this summer are both Manchester. City have an interest in returning to their Ajax days and are looking to add a midfielder this summer with the departure of Fernandinho. United are also looking closely at how to reunite De Jong with his former Ajax manager and new Old Trafford manager Erik ten Hag.
The hardest part might be persuading De Jong to leave. Even when he showed some frustration with matters on the pitch recently, he always said he loved life in the Catalan capital and wanted to stay. Earlier this year, he and his partner bought a new €5million mansion in the Pedralbes district. He was one of the senior players to agree in 2020 to help the club’s finances by deferring some salaries while extending his contract until 2026. A source who knows the dressing room says it would be difficult to persuade him to leave , especially for a United team playing Europa League at best next season.
So there is no simple solution on either side of the problem. It’s still possible for Xavi to coach Barca to finally integrate De Jong as a key cog in the team. But it’s also conceivable that Laporta and Alemany look at the numbers and say they want him gone.
(Top photo: David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images)
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