We live in a digital age where a single piece of genius playing on loop can go viral or an overwhelming stat is capable of sparking a trend in the Twittersphere, instantly hyping up a young talent few have actually watched at length.
But while players are frequently burdened with the ‘next Messi’ tag and others absurdly dubbed the ‘next Mbappe’ – even as Kylian Mbappe is only just becoming Kylian Mbappe – the fanfare surrounding Frenkie De Jong had not been blown out of proportion, partly because he’s simply that good.
However, all that may quickly change now that the Ajax youth product has moved to Barcelona, a transfer which is reportedly worth €75 million plus add-ons and will join the club on July 1.
As such, it’s important to address something right here and now – he is NOT Xavi.
Given his vast array of passes, retention of the ball and play-making abilities, it’s easy – and lazy – to draw parallels with the celebrated Catalan whose quotes on how De Jong possesses the ‘Barcelona DNA’ have admittedly facilitated inevitable comparisons.
The inaccuracies with which the Dutchman’s qualities are portrayed are more to do with the misunderstanding of his style and impact rather than an exaggeration of his standards. Given that most of his online admirers have jumped on the bandwagon on the back of a few YouTube highlights and snippets of information on the internet, that’s hardly surprising.
De Jong is not your typical deep-lying playmaker in the Xavi or Andrea Pirlo mould, in fact, he rarely sports the ‘regista’ hat at all. While he may fall deep to receive possession to kick-start a move, he’s intricately involved further up the pitch, spraying fewer long diagonals than you’d think and focusing more on quick exchanges and penetrative passes that break through the lines.
The young Dutchman also takes more risks in possession than you’d expect for a midfielder who boasts a pass completion rate of 92.2 per cent in Eredivisie this season. De Jong is keenly aware of his surroundings and where other midfielders struggle against the press, he thrives on drawing in opponents.
Frenkie de Jong: Of the 177 players to have attempted more than 25 dribbles, De Jong has a better dribble success rate (86.2%) than any other player since the start of the 2017/18 Eredivisie season— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) January 23, 2019
For more player stats -- https://t.co/bxHlmKwlDq pic.twitter.com/oKAb8mNGRX
He’s one of the best around in receiving the ball facing his own goal, capable of turning his man with ease with the right touch into space and the acceleration to then pull away to launch an attack. It’s that ability to drive forward with the ball at surprising pace and close control that keeps him from being limited to a deep-lying role.
It’s also why this acquisition will lend some balance to the current Barcelona midfield. Expect him to work well alongside fellow accomplished passers in Sergio Busquets and Arthur Melo or Ivan Rakitic while also providing his share of work-rate and defensive astuteness.
Despite featuring in an Ajax side that dominates possession, the 21-year-old’s defensive contributions have been impressive, registering 1.5 tackles and 1.7 interceptions per game in the league this season. In comparison, Arthur has only managed 0.5 tackles and 0.2 interceptions per game.
His arrival is bound to ease the pressure on Lionel Messi who’s been burdened with most of the creative responsibility ever since the departures of first Xavi and then Andres Iniesta, with Philippe Coutinho having struggled in his first 12 months at the Nou Camp.
In Barcelona’s recent victory over Levante, Messi came off the bench and transformed Barcelona’s play. He instantly raised the tempo as he pulled the strings in the final third expertly, receiving possession in the right areas, laying it off and spreading play effortlessly.
It seems absurd to imagine the Argentine getting any better but with De Jong to link-up with, he could be afforded the luxury to get on the end of chances rather than create them on a more regular basis.
In his native Netherlands, De Jong has become the poster boy of the national team’s resurgence and given the influence he has on games at such a young age coupled with his general ‘totaalvoetbal’ nature, it would come as no surprise if he became a symbol for the Barcelona way in years to come. It’s in his DNA.
Barcelona and Sevilla both find themselves at the end of the most demanding quarter-final tie in the Copa del Rey as they prepare themselves to take each other on twice in the next one week.
The Catalan club find themselves camped up at the top of the table, five points clear off Atletico Madrid. Ernesto Valverde’s men are also favourites to win the cup for the fifth time in a row.
Sevilla started off well and earned the tag of surprise title contenders going into November. Come 2019 and their season headed to a downward projectile. The Seville-based club have won just one game in the last six games in all competitions.
We take a look at the talking points ahead of the replay of last season’s Copa del Rey final.
Another episode of the Lionel Messi show?
Sevilla are Messi’s favourite opponents. The Argentine has netted 32 goals against the Los Hispalenses in all competitions. Keeping this in mind, Valverde rested the forward against Leganes on Sunday.
A logical inference of this move would be that the Copa del Rey is treated as a priority at Barcelona and Valverde will enter the battlefield with all guns blazing, the Argentine bazooka in particular.
Messi came on as a substitute and prevented a Sevilla victory when the two teams met for the second time in the league last season.
The five-time Ballon d’Or winner engineered a 5-0 win for the Blaugrana in the finals last season against the same outfit.
The 31-year-old was injured before the quarter-hour mark in their encounter earlier this season. But he was still the player with maximum impact, scoring one and assisting another in that brief time as Barcelona went on to win the game 4-2.
Wednesday night could host yet another episode of the Messi show against his favourite opposition.
Machin must make new plan
The three-man defence worked almost flawlessly for Sevilla in the first few months this season. However, one win in the last six games in all competitions is a terrible record and it can’t be overlooked.
Sevilla have lost twice to a struggling Athletic Club twice in the past 10 days and one could say that Los Leones did not have to work hard for their win in the league.
It appears that teams in Spain have accustomed themselves to Sevilla’s style of play and their inability to evolve is beginning to cost Pablo Machin’s side.
However, all is not lost and a win against Barcelona could help them get their mojo back.
Machin must try a different approach against the Catalan outfit and use that as a blueprint for the rest of the season, if successful.
Sevilla can’t afford to make the same mistakes over and over and watch their hard work at the beginning of the season go in vain.
The poor performances call for a change in or improvisation in tactics and Machin needs to deliver.
“Now or never” for Philippe Coutinho?
The costliest signing in Barcelona’s history has struggled to strike a note in the Catalan outfit and has clearly fallen off the perch in Valverde’s good books.
The versatile Brazilian has lost the left-central midfield position to Arthur Melo and the left-wing position to Ousmane Dembele.
His poor form has even sparked rumours that the Spanish giants want to offload him and are willing to listen to offers.
With Dembele side-lined due to injury for at least two weeks, Coutinho should be a guaranteed starter on the left wing for four games.
The former Liverpool man is hence presented with a golden opportunity to assert himself and claim a spot in the starting line-up. Should he perform well, he will be high on confidence in the most crucial phase of the season as Barcelona resume their quest for all three trophies.
It’s now or never for Coutinho and he must not let this slip.
On Wednesday, Barcelona announced the signing of Kevin-Prince Boateng from Sassuolo on a loan deal with an option to buy after six months.
This out-of-the-blue deal was seen by many as reactionary, puzzling and simply bizarre. A player, ostensibly well past his prime, signed by one of the biggest clubs in the world.
A response to Munir El Haddadi’s departure to Sevilla, Boateng might not have been the first-choice replacement for most Barcelona fans. However, it’s worth noting that signing a quality replacement in the winter, who is willing to play second fiddle to Luis Suarez, would have been extremely difficult and the Catalan club might have been helpless in this case.
What does this transfer mean for Barcelona? We take a look at some of the pros and cons.
A player who knows the league
Boateng wore the colours of Las Palmas and played under Quique Setien, touted by some as the next head coach of the Blaugrana, during his time in Spain. It is where the Ghanaian first started functioning as an out-and-out striker after spending most of his career in midfield.
He scored 10 goals in 28 games and was schooled under Setien in the positional and tactical awareness required to succeed in La Liga.
The 31-year-old also engineered a famous goal – a brilliantly coordinated move and volley – against Villarreal in the 2016/17 season.
Barcelona have officially signed Kevin-Prince Boateng, scorer of one of the finest goals in LaLiga history. pic.twitter.com/1Y7rQWo0LV— FootballJOE (@FootballJOE) January 21, 2019
Given this is a loan deal for the next six months, going for an experienced player could prove a better option than chasing a young prospect, who would need more time to gel in top-class surroundings behind Suarez.
Suarez to work for his spot
With Munir gone, Suarez could take his spot in the starting line-up for granted and slack off, with no one to compete for the number nine spot.
Enter Boateng. The Uruguayan has been in superb form after a slump to start the season, but there is no harm in feeling a little pressure from the Ghana international behind him.
Healthy competition is a good thing for all parties involved, and you can bet on the former AC Milan man to put in a lot of hard work and bring out the best of Suarez – or even replace him?
Transfer does not rule out marquee summer signing
Boateng is signed on a £1.8m loan deal which includes an option to buy for £7.1m. This means that Barcelona could still make a big-name signing in the summer and Boateng is not a long-term option.
Just £1.8m for a player who can boast of playing in the Champions League, Serie A, Bundesliga, La Liga and Premier League seems like a fair deal, given Barcelona’s situation in the forward department.
Basically, the Catalan club has just postponed the signing of a long-term replacement for Suarez and hence went for what is at the very least a cheaper alternative to fill in the six-month gap.
Versatility comes as a boon
Traditionally a midfielder, the Ghana international can play as a number nine and as a number 10.
This versatility can be helpful towards the business end of the season when Barcelona are a victim of harsh scheduling or an injury crisis.
Boateng can also provide that burst of energy and explosiveness when he comes on as a substitute in games where the Catalan club fail to unlock the opponents’ defence.
Youngsters at Barcelona take a hit
Malcom has had to endure a lot of hardships during his time at Barcelona so far. Ranging from injury problems to losing the coach’s favour, the Brazilian has handled it all.
A winger who can also perform in a central role, Malcom probably licked his lips as he watched Munir leave the club as it would then make him the clear-cut second choice behind Suarez.
With Boateng entering the fray, Malcom’s rank in the pecking order is reduced further and an incredible talent will be seen rotting on the bench – if that – for the remainder of the season.
Boateng’s versatility can also prove to be a bane for some of the upcoming midfield prospects. La Masia starlet Carles Alena – who started for Barcelona in victory over Leganes and did a good job might see his minutes reduced.
Simply put, the youngsters at the club will not be welcoming this transfer with a smile.
The Catalan club has always prioritised technical abilities over physicality. But this has seen quite a few exceptions in the recent past – from Paulinho to Arturo Vidal.
In hindsight, both these transfers did pan out well for the Catalans, but there’s no denying that Barcelona are drifting away from their core philosophy which justified the “More than a club” slogan.
If Barcelona were true to their philosophy, they would have trusted a player from the academy or looked at tactical solutions. The point of a back-up striker is to strengthen the spine of the squad in times when Suarez is injured.
Messi as a false nine, Malcom as a striker, the promotion of Abel Ruiz or Riqui Puig from Barcelona B are not the easiest choices, but the Barcelona from the Pep Guardiola days would have definitely considered these before going for a 31-year-old striker who does not exactly fit the club’s profile.
Barcelona have been bagging clever and economical deals recently and this can probably be added to the list.
In Boateng, they have signed a monster of a player who adds some explosive power to the already stacked strike-force at Barcelona.
The signing of Paulinho was considered outrageous, but the Brazilian performed admirably and left his mark in the league.
The Ghanaian’s signing seems more sensible and could bring some instant success.