On Thursday evening, the perfect Pep Guardiola midfielder put on a masterclass to inspire his side to victory in a crucial European fixture.
Of course, he wasn’t actually playing for Manchester City. Yet if history had taken a different turn, he quite easily could have been.
City and Guardiola were keen admirers of Frenkie de Jong in the teenager’s breakout 2018/19 season, when he played a starring role in a remarkable young Ajax side reaching the Champions League semi-finals.
City and Pep considered buying him from the Dutch giants in 2019, but in the end the then 21-year-old opted to pen an agreement for the 2019/20 season with Barcelona – a club that, thanks to the likes of Johan Cruyff and Rinus Michels, has close ties to Ajax and Dutch football as a whole.
De Jong is 24 now, but he is only just starting to look at the real deal at Camp Nou. In Barca’s 4-2 win against Napoli in the 2nd leg of their Europa League tie this week, the Dutch midfielder put in a masterful display.
With Barca ruthlessly exploiting the space afforded to them by their Italian opponents, De Jong scored the second goal of the night after just 13 minutes, curling a sumptuous effort into the top corner to silence the usually hostile Napoli home crowd.
After half-time he demonstrated his awareness and impeccable sense of timing, pulling off a lovely dummy to allow Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to sweep home Barca’s fourth.
Owing largely to managerial instability and Barca’s financially necessitated need to reshuffle their playing squad, De Jong has found consistent performances hard to come by over the past two-and-a-half seasons. However, the fact that he is now flourishing under the leadership of Xavi Hernandez – the former Barca captain and Guardiola disciple – shows that City should not hesitate to renew their interest in him.
Since taking charge in November, Xavi has begun working on a long-term project to get Barca playing like they used to. The team is still at a halfway house stage; the midfield and defense is once again crammed with skilled ball-players capable of performing rondos until the sun goes down, but their style is a bit too counter-attack oriented to be compared to the football of Cruyff or Guardiola.
Xavi has re-adopted a 4-3-3 system with De Jong flourishing as one of two number eights. He is back playing in the system he was raised in at Ajax and one that, crucially, Guardiola uses at City.
City’s number eights – Kevin De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan and Bernardo Silva – play a crucial role in the team. They link defensive midfield to attack and often become attackers themselves by making runs into the channels between the opposition full-backs and centre-backs.
Yet all three are slightly different. De Bruyne is more of a gung-ho gunslinger of a midfielder, capable of sensational passes and crosses with a higher risk of interception. Gundogan is superb at ghosting into the penalty area, but when he’s not doing that he is safe as houses when in possession of the ball. Bernardo can do it all, although his strength is more dribbling, work rate and intricate passing rather than Hollywood balls.
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By the start of next season De Bruyne and Gundogan will both be 31 and, with the latter’s contract set to expire in June 2023, it seems more likely that he will be the first to depart. At 27, Bernardo has age on his side and fans are hanging on every rumored development of new contract talks after two consecutive summers of speculation he would leave.
De Jong is most like Gundogan, a vital role in Guardiola’s City team. Barca will be desperate to keep hold of him, but with rumors of a bid to hijack City’s pursuit of Erling Haaland, they are going to need to sell someone. With a young crop of midfielders that includes Pedri, Gavi, Nico Gonzalez already at the club, De Jong could be the most sellable of their assets.
Thanks to the ties between Barca and the likes of Guardiola and Txiki Begiristain, City have a good relationship with the Catalan giants. That was said to be a factor in the sale of Ferran Torres in December, with a fee to please both parties being reached in efficient fashion.
If Barca decides that they can afford to let De Jong go, then City should not hesitate to cash-in on that existing goodwill.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.