The Answer to Manchester United’s Midfield Woes?


Catching the Eye- That Game in Madrid

Santiago Bernabéu, home to the royal whites of Madrid. Historic in nature yet prestigious in name; a true monument in the great gallery of the game. Unparalleled atmosphere, capable of engulfing the best of players as they grace the pitch. The same atmosphere amplifies tenfold come Champions League nights, for that’s when the Galácticos truly shine. With a structure blessed with vast fortune, a defeat in the grand occasion is sure to raise a few eyebrows.

Such attention was warranted when Ajax visited the Bernabéu following a 1 goal deficit from their first encounter. In the book of David & Goliath, this is worthy of a chapter on its own; Ajax had unceremoniously ended Real’s era of dominance in a 4-1 win, whilst highlighting the dawn of a new age for the Dutch side. Dusan Tadic received the most plaudits for his performance, but it was a game that signified the epiphany of a certain 22-year-old Frenkie de Jong. In a midfield battle against World Cup Finalists and a Ballon d’Or winner, it was little Frenkie who bossed the game and announced his quality to the world. The game was a clear signal for Madrid’s Catalan rivals to invest in the seeds of potential.

Perhaps it’s now safe to say the move didn’t bear the fruits as intended. Confusion over his preferred position had seen inconsistencies seep through his game, which has undoubtedly stalled his development. Nevertheless, Frenkie remains a brilliant player under the right set-up, and it seems like a reunion with the man that knows him best would resurrect the quality lying dormant.

This analysis will cover the Dutchman’s performances with Barcelona last season. All figures below are based on performance per 90 minutes played, according to StatsBomb via FBref.

Aside from the constant queries regarding the negotiation process, perhaps the most asked question surrounding the player is “Is he the defensive midfielder United need to solve their midfield woes?” To put it frankly, possibly. Frenkie de Jong is never a tenacious ball-winner, but rather an effective roaming playmaker spearheading attacks from deep.

Blessed with technical abilities that allows him to weave through obstacles effortlessly, he’s also received the education to compliment, as a product of the famed Ajax academy. He rarely gives up possession, which speaks to his ball retention abilities, making him highly sought after. Perhaps a more secure passer rather than a risk-taker, De Jong is the type of midfielder that likes to keep the ball ticking, linking play with his forwards through precise passing and generally keeping the ball alive.

Frenkie De Jong’s Progessive Passing Actions from the 2021/22 season.

When compared to other central midfielders in Europe’s top 5 leagues last season, Frenkie’s only accumulated 3.5 Progressive Passes per90, which rank him below the median. This can be explained by the position he occupies at Barcelona in the past season. Under Xavi, De Jong has been occupying higher positions which limits the spaces for him to play progressive passes forward, compared to Busquets with 4.1 this season, by playing as Barcelona’s deepest midfielder. Nevertheless, the Dutchman is extremely tidy in distribution, surrendering the ball via passing only 4.04 times per90. Which speaks to his role as the connection between the midfield and attack.

Distribution Tendencies

As we’ve alluded to earlier, Frenkie de Jong has been a rather efficient link between the midfield and attack, despite not being Barcelona’s primary outlet. For the many passes he’s completed, they’re done with the utmost precision and purpose.

Frenkie De Jong’s Distribution Tendencies for the 2021/22 season.

Even with only completing a low 35.6 Passes per90, the midfielder betters most with 9.17 Final Third Passes per 100 Attempted Passes – which suggest in 100 passes attempted by De Jong, he would find a player in the final thirds at least 9 times. To put it into context, Kevin de Bruyne, though a far more advanced midfielder compared to Frenkie, completed 8.5 Final Third Passes per 100 Attempted Passes. This not only shows the creative output of Frenkie, but also his tendencies to connect with teammates.

Again, his high position jeopardizes his raw numbers but when accompanied with context, we can see a classy midfielder in the Dutchman. Traditionally, long passes favour deeper midfielders for the space they get to pass the ball towards are greater than their advanced teammates.

Frenkie De Jong’s Long Pass Statistics for the 2021/22 season.

Perhaps not the most accomplished of long passers, Frenkie has proven to be competent when performing diagonals. With only 5.35 Long Passes Attempted per90 last season, the midfielder doesn’t rank particularly high in terms of the frequency of long passes dishing out for his teammates. Nonetheless, he’s shown his qualities with a high 85% Completion Rate for his Long Passes. Therefore, he’d definitely have what it takes to inject the urgency and quality whenever teams are sat on a low block.

Press-Resistance Ball Carrier

The definite quality of Frenkie De Jong would be his ball-carrying ability. His technical prowess exceeds the average player, as he casually strolls with the ball as a means to break the opposition press. He remains a vital cog in the build-up phase for his spatial awareness allows him to understand his surroundings to make better decision making across the defensive third. In fact, whilst working with Ten Hag at Ajax, Frenkie would always drop deep to receive the ball from his goalkeeper and carry it through the defensive thirds. Perhaps on his debut season at Barca, we’ve seen him adopt a deeper role with restricted contributions towards build-up in terms of ball carrying for the sake of security. Thus, the impact on his performances.

We can expect De Jong to take up that role under his former boss should the opportunity meet, especially considering the issues Manchester United have with their build-up phase. With only 1.5 Miscontrols per touch per90, De Jong has been pretty secure with the ball, hence the title of press resistant.

Frenkie De Jong’s Ball Carrying Statistics for the 2021/22 season.

When compared to his peers last season, Frenkie ranks amongst the best ball carriers in Europe. The Dutchman completes 10.6 Progressive Carries per 100 Touches last season, whilst 3.5 Carries entered the Final Third of the pitch. With a Dribbling Success Rate of 65.8%, De Jong is definitely a capable dribbler as well as a ball carrier through midfield.

However, it must be mentioned that midfielders with ball carrying tendencies across multiple leagues may not adapt smoothly to the Premier League. Paul Pogba was amongst the best technician, but he’s also had moments of mishaps when attempting to dribble through midfield. Truthfully, having a player comfortable and brave to take the responsibility will benefit the overall build-up, but it must be done with cautious for the risk may be amplified in a much physical league.

Defensive Frailties

Regardless of the value he brings in possession, Frenkie is rather anonymous out of it. De Jong doesn’t get his hands dirty as much as his midfield compatriot Busquets or Gavi would, neither does he impede the opponent’s attack much. He has a decent success rate, but the frequency of defensive actions leaves a lot to be desired. Not to mention, his constant patrolling upfield would leave an obvious gap deeper in midfield, which signifies a need for a defensive-minded midfield partner to facilitate De Jong’s involvement in the build-up.

Frenkie De Jong’s True Tackle Statistics for the 2021/22 season.

Based on his True Tackles (Tackles + Fouls + Challenges Lost) last season, we can see that he hasn’t been sticking his foot out to win the ball. He’s collected 0.78 True Tackles per90 last season, with only 0.34 being Successful Tackles. This goes to show the limited contributions Frenkie provides in defence.

If we are to see Frenkie at his best, we’d have to see him partner a more solid yet conservative midfielder in a pivot. At Ajax, he’d had Schone as his midfield partner, constantly recycling possession and keeping things tidy in midfield, yet providing a presence in the defensive front whilst Frenkie works his magic upfield.

Another Expensive Mistake?

Having seen the end of the #Pogback experiment, Manchester United ought to be more cautious with their spending on luxury midfielders, that would likely be the new face of the club. Pogba had the technical and physical abilities to succeed in the league but ultimately failed to meet the expectations of a consistent performer. This in part is due to his horrid injury record, but also not helped with the inconsistency with the tactics and positioning, or the right players to oversee his development.

Despite not possessing the physical prowess of Paul, Frenkie definitely has the technical abilities coupled with the maturity and game intelligence to bring his game forward. Not to mention the reunion with the manager that kickstarted his career, would no doubt reignite some flames within. Regardless, a defensive midfielder remains imperative to the implementation of the Frenkie project.

Written by an Andy verified content writer