Steeped in the ways of Johan Cruyff having made his breakthrough at Ajax, the breadcrumbs were already laid out for him to follow to Catalonia. The Dutchman appeared every bit a natural Barcelona player.
Now, there are some questions over how de Jong fits into a team that has no obvious place for him. At the time of his signing, it was widely assumed that the 22-year-old would be installed as the natural heir to Sergio Busquets. Despite being a Barcelona icon, Busquets looked to be fading as a force and de Jong proved in Ajax’s run to the Champions League semi-final last season that he stood as good a chance as anyone of filling his boots.
The problem is Barca aren’t quite ready to move on from Busquets and de Jong is too good to sit on the bench. As a result, the latter has been shoehorned into the starting lineup. He has been used alongside Busquets, but de Jong is the one instructed to drive forward, turning him into more of a No. 8 than the No. 6 he was signed as. It’s a role the Dutchman isn’t especially suited to.
Quique Setien has even deployed de Jong as something of a ‘False Nine’ in an attempt to find a position for the summer signing. The most compelling case of this came in the 3-2 away win over Real Betis on February 9, when de Jong often found himself as the furthest man forward, making runs beyond both Antoine Griezmann and Lionel Messi.
De Jong enjoyed some success in this adapted role, scoring the opening goal in the win at the Benito Villamarin by making a late run into the box. Luis Suarez’s injury lay-off means Setien needs someone to provide some vertical thrust. It led him to using de Jong in a similar way against Napoli in the first leg of Barcelona’s Champions League last 16 tie, although Arturo Vidal has also deployed as a ‘False Nine.’
This ploy is a mark of Barca’s wastefulness in the transfer market. Given all the money they have spent in recent years (close to £700 million since 2017) why is there no suitable deputy for Suarez? But it’s also robbing Setien of a player who could have a real influence on his side. De Jong is at his best at the base of the midfield. He might not be as wily as Busquets in breaking up opposition moves, but the Dutchman is a pace-setter with the ball at his feet.
At present, de Jong is averaging just 68.7 passes per 90 minutes. In comparison, Busquets is charting at 95.3 per 90 minutes. In fact, Ivan Rakitic (83.3), Jordi Alba (78.9), Gerard Pique (75.6), Clement Lenglet (74.2) and Arthur (72.4) are all averaging more total passes per 90 minutes than de Jong, a player signed for his passing ability.
Against Napoli on Tuesday, de Jong was out-passed by no fewer than eight of his Barcelona teammates, making just 46 total passes. Of course, such crude passing statistics don’t paint a full picture, but it’s not even as if de Jong is pulling the strings for Barcelona higher up the pitch, averaging just 22.6 final third passes per 90 minutes. Busquets, a player who rarely gets within 30 yards of the opposition goal, is averaging more, with 22.9 per 90 minutes.
At Ajax, de Jong was almost always the most influential player on the pitch no matter the calibre of the opposition. At the Santiago Bernabeu last season, when the Dutch champions dismantled the reigning European champions, de Jong made more passes (55) than any other player in red and white and kept a higher pass completion rate (89.1%) than anyone else who started the game.
Barca’s midfield has lost its structure of late. Rakitic lacks the technical capacity to play at the tempo Setien demands while Arthur, who seems to be more of a natural fit for the new manager, has struggled for fitness and consistency. Messi is the only thing keeping Barcelona’s central unit together, dropping deep to direct his side’s play going forward - the Argentine is averaging 2.6 key passes per game this season, more than any of his team-mates.
At this point of his career, Barcelona’s midfield should essentially be a support system for Messi, but it is Messi who is instead doing the supporting. Busquets is no longer capable of doing that job on his own, but the path still hasn’t been cleared for the man signed to be his successor. Stuck between the last generation and the next, Barca are only doing themselves more harm.