What is happening to Frenkie de Jong at Barcelona?
Ernesto Valverde, what is it that broke you?
Was it that quarterfinal loss to Roma, when you were overrun despite fielding a conservative lineup? Is that when you decided midfielders should never get forward? Or was it last year’s semifinal loss to Liverpool? When you close your eyes, can you still picture a depleted Liverpool side overturning yet another 3-0 lead? Are you forever doomed to fight the last war?
How did you feel when the signing of Frenkie de Jong was announced this summer? Did you not see the possibilities presented by an elite progressive passer aged just 22? Were you excited to learn he covered a lot of ground defensively? While you were at it, did you see that he could get forward in attack? After years of trying to cover for Sergio Busquets’ disintegrating legs with older signings, did none of this warm your heart?
What is happening this season? Have you instructed De Jong to pass and do little else? Why is he only covering a sliver of the right flank? Where did the interceptions go? How has he only taken one shot in 948 minutes of La Liga action? Do you realize how hard it is to get a football analytics website to beg for some long-range shooting?
Mr. Valverde, why are you turning Frenkie de Jong into Harry Winks?
Sure, you can have a player just progress the ball, but why stop there? If that player is Harry Winks, we know that it’s because he does little else well, but do you believe the same holds true of De Jong? If so, why sign him for 75 million Euros instead of Winks? Why sign him for 41 million Euros more than you spent on Arthur the season before? Did you so badly need a player who, in your system, is “Arthur with more tackling”? What was the plan? Was there one?
What’s going on at Barcelona? How have they, of all clubs, become hostile to well-rounded midfielders? Remember Paulinho? Remember how he could do things at the back of midfield or in the box and basically nothing in between? Remember how he was replaced with Arturo Vidal, who had the exact same issue? Was he supposed to balance out the deployment of Arthur, who shot the ball all of five times during his first La Liga season? What is the point of signing players to make up for Busquet’s declining range when they’re not allowed to be rangy? Look, I’m not saying De Jong should become Frenkie Lampard, but maybe the balance here needs some tweaking?
Have you ever read the story of Sisyphus? Did you find yourself thinking it could be improved by the addition of a gaggle of midfielders standing ten yards behind our titular hero as he pushes the boulder up the slope? On a related note, have you ever watched Lionel Messi’s Argentina? If yes, did you like it? Did the sight of Messi doing all the creative work in front of a stolid side excite you? As mileage catches up with Luis Suárez, Antoine Griezmann, and Jordi Alba, is that what you’d like this Barcelona team to become? By the by, have you noticed that those Argentina sides, despite Messi’s brilliance, don’t actually win titles?
Is this how it’s going to be for the rest of your tenure? Retrenchment after retrenchment after retrenchment, until . . . what, exactly? Where does this all lead? Are all these overcorrections from the strange Champions League collapses of years past actually working? Have you noticed that your team has the second-best expected goals difference in the league? Have you realized your team is only sharing the top spot in a disappointing league thanks to an expected goals overperformance that is extreme even for a Messi team? What has really been fixed here? Do you expect to win like this? If your team is eliminated from the Champions League without a full-on collapse, but simply because it’s not that good, would you count that as progress?
Mr. Valverde, when you close your eyes, do you not dream of players who might break this cycle? Have you heard of Frenkie de Jong? Use him.