Frenkie de Jong: Magic under pressure

Dutch Players, Eredivisie, La Liga

Goals and assists are not the most suitable statistics to capture Frenkie de Jong‘s brilliance. His contribution on the pitch is most remarkable during build-up, often well before it comes to scoring. Again and again he lets the opponent come close. And again and again he turns his back to them and shakes them off with an inimitable lightness.

The magic of Frenkie was captured in 2019 in a photo of the match in which Ajax eliminated Real Madrid in the Champions League. Madrid players Vinicius Jr. and Luka Modrić have fallen over. They look at each other in despair while De Jong dribbles past them light-footedly. A moment before that, he shook off Vinicius by sovereignly keeping his ground, shoulder to shoulder. Then he passed Modric with a croqetta; the sliding movement with the ball from leg to leg that Andrés Iniesta often used, and still uses at his club in Japan. 

Frenkie de Jong in the Real-Madrid Ajax (1-4) match on March 5, 2019. The action in which De Jong fools Modrićand Vinicius starts at 58 seconds

There doesn’t seem to be a competition level in the world where Frenkie isn’t able to perform under the pressure. And it is this ability with which he arouses the admiration of just about everyone, including fellow world stars. Like Kylian Mbappé. After an international match between the Netherlands and France, the Frenchman suggested to the management of his club Paris Saint-Germain they should do their best to try and sign him.

Last seasons 2020-21 statistics from La Liga help to better understand the Frenkie phenomenon. De Jong is an exceptional player. Often in a positive way, but not always.

He doesn’t score all that much. Goal oriented? ‘Not at all’, he once said about himself in an interview with Ziggo Sport. ‘The funny thing is, I often score in training sessions, and I can shoot pretty well. But when I get into that position in the game, I almost never shoot. And even if I do, the shot is often off target. I think it has to do with a mentality switch.”

CAUTION

He scored three goals for Barcelona in La Liga last season, an average number for a Spanish League midfielder. More remarkable is the fact that no one in the Spanish League apart from Frenkie takes less risk, when deciding to try and schoot.

In other words: there is no player for whom the chance of a goal in the 2020-21 season was greater when he decided to shoot (0.32), as shown above in the statistic ‘Expected goals per shot’. There are also hardly any players positioned more closely to the goal when they attempt to score: at an average distance of 11.40 meters.

The solution seems obvious: Shoot more often, but the issue is a bit more complicated than this. The fact that Frenkie de Jong is careful when decideing to shoot ay be based on his self-knowledge. Because when he shoots, Frenkie de Jong scores much less than you might expect based on the quality of his scoring chance: (Expected goals).

BOOST

It’s a minor issue for a playmaker who gives a boost to every team that he joins. Almost 92 percent of his passes arrived at their target last season in Liga. A few players do better, Gerard Pique for instance, but those are central defenders whereas De Jong usually plays in midfield.

BALL AT HIS FEET

No player in La Liga carried the ball further last season than Frenkie de Jong did. He frolicked more than 13 kilometres across the field, floating, dodging the opponent. Running with the ball at your feet is not necessarily beneficial for your team, but it is one of Frenkie’s specialties. Importantly, when he runs with the ball, he usually runs forward. De Jong scores exceptionally high on this point as well. Only Lionel Messi carried the ball further to the opponents’ goal in La Liga last season, than he did. And when De Jong runs with the ball, he dribbles past many players. He hardly ever looses the ball. ‘I like to dribble’, De Jong said when he had been lined-up only a few times at Ajax 1. ‘Sometimes I do it too much, they tell me but well. Football should also be fun.’

TACKLES

Tackling and intercepting passes, is a thing that Frenkie de Jong does not do often at Barcelona. In fact, there are hardly any midfielders in the Spanish league scoring below him in this stat. When he still played at Jong Ajax, his trainer Peter Bosz said that he was impressed by De Jong’s offensive contribution, but could that he could step it up when he lost the ball. De Jong fills many gaps in the defense even wehn he doesnot tackle but sometimes the lack thereof can lead to dangerous situations. With Ukraine’s first goal against the Netherlands in the European Championship, Andriy Yarmolenko was able to strike freely. Stefan de Vrij‘s tackle came too late. Frenkie was in better position to stop the shot, but did not intervene.

ARKEL

Frenkie is named after the British punk band Frankie Goes To Hollywood. He comes from Arkel, a village in South Holland with 3,500 inhabitants. He was born on May 12, 1997 in the Beatrix Hospital in Gorkum, a few kilometers away. Frenkie is the son of Marjon Schuchhard-de Bruijn, home care worker and korfball player from Schelluinen, near Arkel. She is the daughter of Jan de Bruijn, Frenkie’s grandfather, who was a key midfielder for VV Schelluinen. There is another international in his not so distant family also has a second fo: Aad de Jong, a cousin of his grandfather played for ADO Den Haag and five times for the Dutch national team in the 1950s. De Jong’s father works as a parking inspector and was also a good football player at the Arkelse Sport Vereniging (ASV). He played in the team of coach Jan de Bruijn and thus got to know Frenkie’s mother.

Frenkie’s mother told De Volkskrantsome years ago that he couldn’t be quiet as a boy, unless you put a ball or a balloon in his box. He could walk at eleven months. Frenkie started playing football at third division Saurday club ASV, and his talent is soon noticed. He can go to Feyenoord, the club that most of the family De Jong support, but in 2004 at the age of seven, he decides to choose the Willem II-youth academy. He enjoyed the atmosphere friendly at the Tilburg club and will eventually continue to play there for ten years. In Tilburg he also finishes secondary school, according to the wishes of his parents and he meets Mikky Kiemeney with whom he now lives in Barcelona. Kiemeney comes from Hilarenbeek, a village near Tilburg. She played hockey at Den Bosch up to the A1, but has since stopped.

‘The fact that he was so small, both compared to his opponents and his teammates, helped him’

For the book Frenkie, biographer Luka Caioli spoke to his family, friends and former trainers. ‘The fact that he was so small, both compared to his opponents and his teammates, helped him’, says Jos Bogers, one of his youth trainers at Willem II in the book. ‘As a result, he had to develop his technique and ability to anticipate. Physically he couldn’t win, but he soon realized that he could outsmart his opponnents with his movements and his insight.” Another Willem II youth trainer, Robby Hendriks, says in the biography: ‘Frenkie made sure he always had enough space around him.’

Willem II trainer Jurgen Streppel has the dubious honor of using Frenkie for Willem II only a few times, as a substitute. At the time, the club was playing against relegation and that is why the trainer was not prepared to take risks by lining up this adventurous, dribbling and risk-seeking blond midfielder. Rather than sit on the bench at the first team, Frenkie prefers to start playing regularly at Ajax Under 21 and so he is sold to Amsterdam, for 300 thousand euros. PSV and Feyenoord also wanted to bring him in. Later on, Willem II the club that educated Frenkie would earn about 8.5 million euros from his transfer to Barcelona for an amount of 85 million.

FAN OF MESSI

At Barcelona Frenkie had a chance to play together with one of his heroes: Lionel Messi. ‘Messi has everything’, he has said. ‘He can even head even though he is small. I am more for Barca than for Real, because I am for Messi.’ Now that Messi has left, Frenkie has announced that he watch the Argentinian on the television, like he always used to do.

Moving to Barcelona is quit exciting he admitted last year in an interview with former freestyle footballer Soufiane Touzani. ‘There are guys with a lot of status. Even more than at Ajax. But if you show that you are a skillful spalyer you will get respect.’

With his friendly smile and no nonsense attitude Frenkie still charms almost everone. His first club ASV wanted to name a public stand after him, but Frenkie and his family did not want this. Nowadays there is a man-sized photo of him at the club where his brother Youri plays in the first team. In his Ajax days, De Jong still liked to go back to Arkel three times a week. Having dinner with his grandparents, chilling with friends. Playing football in squares. ‘Don’t tell Ajax, because that is not allowed’, he told Dutch former international Andy van der Meijden in a car interview. And then: ‘Oh, you don’t have to cut it out from the footage.’

In many of the photos Frenkie shares on social media, the man who plays with Messi regularly still looks like a boy. A boy who is alwas smiling. ‘I am having most fun e the most fun when plating football’ he said to Andy van der Meijde. ‘It’s nice when you humiliate someone with a trick, I can always have fun when I do so.’

Despite that smile, De Jong is not an all-mans friend who talks people down. He doesn’t mince words. “Keizer has nice ears, that you can pull at’, he says to Van der Meijde about Marcel Keizer his trainer in the first where he has only just started playing. And about one of his youth coaches: ‘Aron Winter is a nice man. However, he did not let me play that much at Ajax Under 19, so I don’t know if he is much of a football expert.”

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