Frenkie de Jong is drawing interest from Europe’s elite with some impressive performances, but what makes this Ajax midfielder such a special talent?
When it comes to comparisons, de Jong is already drawing the plaudits. Some liken him to a modern Franz Beckenbauer, others see Frank Rijkaard and Xavi pointed out a likeness to Sergio Busquets.
His athleticism, confidence in possession, passing ability and versatility in central midfield have really caught the eye and earned him a starting place for both club and country.
A number of European clubs have been linked to the 21-year-old over the last few seasons but Manchester City look poised to secure his signature in January as Fernandinho’s long-term replacement.
A special talent in the making
De Jong’s passing ability is one element of his game that really stands out.
He frequently dissects the defensive lines with incisive through balls and his intelligent one-touch passing helps Ajax flourish in possession.
In the Eredivisie 2018/19, the dynamic midfielder has played 841 minutes, averages 75.5 passes per game and still manages a 91.8% pass completion rate – second only to Matthijs de Ligt’s 92.8% (who’s played 239 more minutes).
Although he is yet to register an assist for Ajax this season, he is often used slightly deeper to build phases and help the attacking threats of Dusan Tadic, Hakim Zayech and David Neres supply the strikers.
His confidence on the ball is another key attribute and helps his team breakdown a defensive press. When receiving the ball in deeper areas, he carries forward to draw defenders in – creating more space for the receiver – and then uses his intricate passes to find the team mate in a more advanced position.
After impressing for the Dutch national team in the most recent UEFA Nations League fixtures against France and Germany, fellow countryman Georginio Wijnaldum came in with high praise for the youngster.
“With his dribbles he always ensures there is a good connection from defence to midfield and from midfield to attack” Wijnaldum told Voetbal International.
“He is always able to create space because he is a) always available and b) with his actions he creates many situations: he forces opponents to choose, they have to come out of position, lose their marker, which can automatically make space or give us a free man.”
On top of this, he has a quick turn of pace and his close control makes him a difficult player to dispossess and he often glides past opposition players as if they are running in treacle.
In 19 appearances across all competitions this season, both domestically and internationally, he has attempted 1.3 dribbles per game and is fouled 1.4 times on average – showing his ability to draw fouls with his good footwork and skills in tight spaces.
On the defensive side, de Jong’s tackling, positioning and discipline help set him apart from other midfielders in his age category.
He averages 1.4 tackles and 1.9 interceptions per game and has only received one yellow card in 1454 minutes of football – a rare talent for someone so young.
The Netherlands’ recent UEFA Nations League clash against France, in particular, propelled de Jong into the limelight and showed the world that this young midfielder should be taken seriously.
Check out 0:36 as he channels his inner-N’Golo Kante by dispossessing the little maestro himself with a fine tackle.
Room for improvement
Ajax’s style of play in recent years has been focused around being safe in possession with simple two-touch passing to try and unlock the opposition.
A bit of a maverick in his youth, de Jong even admitted that he wanted to express his own style when playing which meant more risks when beating players and trying to play the champagne pass.
“My quality is my intuition. I can’t just ignore that, can I? Then I’d be a player of whom there are a thousand of my age. Often I’d say I understood the coach, then do my own thing on the field,” he said in an interview with Voetbal International.
Despite being given licence to express himself under new Ajax coach Erik ten Hag, de Jong sometimes gets caught in possession in key areas but still ranks very low compared to his team mates with an average dispossession of 0.6 times per game.
The other part of his game that needs improving is his contributions in attack. To become a true world class box-to-box midfielder in future years, he must add goals and assists to his tally.
He has just hit 50 career senior appearances in competitive fixtures across the board and in 3251 minutes has only scored two goals and provided eight assists. Still in the early stages, he has time on his side to develop and unlock the attacking elements which will help him go down in Oranje folklore.
De Jong’s journey
A product of Willem II’s academy, de Jong made his senior debut at 17 years old against ADO Den Haag but only made one more senior appearance in his two-year spell at the club.
His €300,000 transfer to Dutch giants Ajax in 2015/16 signalled a new era for the hot prospect and his impressive performances in the Jong Ajax side – contributing six goals and eight assists in 31 appearances – quickly caught former first team coach Peter Bosz’s attention.
Bosz tested the young prodigy in both central midfield and a less-favoured central defensive role but he was limited to cameos off the bench in the Eredivisie and Europa League.
However, when former FC Utrecht boss ten Hag replaced the sacked Marcel Keizer as head coach in 2017/18, de Jong seized his opportunity to impress and his dynamic ability moved him up the first team pecking order – making 22 league appearances and providing eight assists that season.
In 2018/19, the flying Dutchman is now one of the first names on the team sheet and his dazzling club performances were rewarded with an international call-up from Ronald Koeman.
De Jong got his debut as a half-time substitute in a friendly against Peru and showcased his talent in front of 40,000 Dutch fans in his home stadium, Johan Cruyff ArenA, by assisting the equaliser and helping his side win 2-1.
Since that fateful day in September, the midfielder has earned his place in the starting XI for all UEFA Nations League games in a Dutch side that qualified for the semi-finals ahead of Germany and France.
Did you know: Frenkie de Jong was named after Liverpudlian band Frankie Goes to Hollywood.