Frenkie de Jong was meant to be the catalyst for change. At least, that’s what I assumed.
De Jong was responding to a question that many of us didn’t realize we wanted answered four years ago: Could Bayern Munich and Germany veteran Franz Beckenbauer compete with the best if he were to play in 2018? Der Kaiser won the Ballon d’Or twice as a defender (1972, 1976), but he didn’t really win it for his defending. He began his career with Germany as an offensive midfielder before being moved as far back as possible, sitting as a “libero” behind the defensive line. But that was only the beginning; once he got the ball, Beckenbauer would move it forward on his own and make the game-winning pass.
Beckenbauer led Germany to victory against the Netherlands in the 1974 World Cup final. The match may easily be classed as a collision of styles, with Johan Cruyff’s Dutch team playing free-flowing Total Football while Germany played programmed football. Beckenbauer’s all-or-nothing mentality, on the other hand, mirrored the style of his opponents. “[Frenkie] de Jong is a better version of Franz Beckenbauer, since he possesses speed and passes the ball effortlessly,” remarked Arie Haan, a Dutch midfielder, in 2018.
Ajax was using this lithe blond kid as a center-back in the Eredivisie, and he was dribbling up, down, and across the field for joy. It was video game soccer, but it was more Super Mario Brothers than FIFA. Any open space he came across seemed to be an invitation to press on. He’d turned the usual risk/reward scenario on its head on the soccer pitch. De Jong’s bravery opened up a whole new world of possibilities for how the game could be played; if you can play like that as a center-back, what can’t you do?
De Jong didn’t play at the back during Ajax’s memorable run to the Champions League final, but he nonetheless extended the field and the frontiers of positional possibilities from a deep midfield spot. He transferred to Barcelona for €75 million ($94.6 million) in the summer of this year. He’s been the one thing he didn’t appear to be capable of being three years later: unspectacular.
So, how did it go? And, now that he’s been linked with a move away from Barcelona to Manchester United, where he’d reunite with former Ajax boss Erik ten Hag?