Regular Barcelona watchers will recognize the scene.
Barca are struggling in a game, laboring to break down their doggedly defending opponents. Around the hour mark, the fourth official holds up a board showing the number 21. Frenkie de Jong walks unhappily from the pitch, and the Nou Camp crowd grumbles.
This keeps happening. Before Tuesday night’s game at home to Celta Vigo, De Jong had completed 90 minutes just 13 times in 33 matches since Xavi took over as coach last November. The issue was especially glaring during the recent home defeats to Cadiz and Rayo Vallecano, when the Dutchman was whistled by fans as he walked to the bench and Barca went on to lose both games 1-0.
Meanwhile, the Catalan press continues to push the idea that Barca are looking to sell the 24-year-old, especially if either Manchester club makes a sizeable offer this summer.
It is a situation nobody expected when Barca paid €86 million to sign Europe’s most promising midfielder from Ajax in the summer of 2019. But it is now a dilemma facing all involved — De Jong himself, Xavi, club president Joan Laporta and sporting director Mateu Germany. And one without any easy answer.
The debate over how to best use De Jong has raged ever since he arrived almost three years ago. Midway through last season, it seemed then Barca coach Ronald Koeman had found the solution with a more attacking role that saw De Jong regularly breaking into the box to either score himself or set up team-mates. But that purple patch did not last — for either player or coach.
Xavi’s return to the Nou Camp dugout has not resolved the situation. Veteran Sergio Busquets remains untouchable at the base of the midfield in the club’s traditional 4-3-3 system. De Jong usually plays in one of the more attacking positions on either side, but does not often make a big impression, especially compared to youngsters Pedri and Gavi.
Pedri’s intuitive passing and positioning makes the team’s attacking much more fluid, while Gavi adds an energy and bite which blaugrana fans and pundits really love. De Jong more often drifts through games, looking unsure of what exactly he should be doing. The few times he has deputized for Busquets as holding midfielder have not gone well either.
“Frenkie is very important,” Xavi said last month. “He should mark an era at this club. I am happy with him, and he has to continue. He has to score goals, assist, and be the protagonist in games.”
Nobody doubts De Jong has the ability for such protagonism, but it has not happened yet. There have been moments — his 32 games under Xavi have brought four goals and three assists. The standout performance was away at Napoli in February’s Europa League play-off when he capped an excellent all-round display with a fine 20-yard strike curled inside the far post.
That was his last goal, and he also has no assists in his last 15 appearances. As the team’s form dipped following March’s 4-0 Clasico victory over Madrid, the grumblings have been growing ever louder. Fairly, or not, De Jong bears the brunt of frustration from Barca fans when things are not going well.
Both player and coach are aware that things are not working perfectly. Xavi’s vision for the team is different from that of his old manager Pep Guardiola, with the “interior” midfielders now told to run forward more off the ball. He has been providing De Jong with specially-edited videos to show what he wants, especially where to receive the ball and how to connect with teammates.
That is welcomed by a player who through his career has liked to watch back his own games to see where he has been going wrong, but there is still a nagging feeling of a disconnect. Asked after the recent 2-1 win over Mallorca on Movistar TV if he felt he had his coach’s backing, the answer was short.
“We had a very good conversation,” De Jong said. “The boss has said he has confidence in me. So everyone is happy.”
The tone of voice and facial expression did not suggest 100 per cent contentment. It was left open whether the issue was the way he is now perceived in the media, or within the club.
De Jong was then asked if there was frustration at how Barca’s season was ending — with no trophies and a nervous battle to make the top four and make next season’s Champions League.
“Yes, very frustrating,” he replied. “We’ve not been good this year, but I hope we keep improving and next year can be different.”
Around the Nou Camp, there are now two broad schools of thought regarding De Jong’s situation.
One is that there is still time — he turns 25 today and retains the potential and quality to lead the team over the coming seasons. The other is that he has never lived up to the reputation he had on arrival, and the time has come to try and recoup as much as possible of the €86 million spent on him.
Barca’s financial situation — their huge debts and struggles to meet La Liga’s salary rules — are also a huge factor in the thinking of Laporta and Alemany.
The club hierarchy can see that it is politically acceptable to sell De Jong. Cashing in on other players who have a market — Pedri, Gavi, Ronald Araujo, Ansu Fati — would cause uproar among fans. While those who they would like to sell — including Sergino Dest, Neto, Martin Braithwaite, Samuel Umtiti, Miralem Pjanic, Clement Lenglet and Memphis Depay — are less likely to raise the kind of money that Barca need this summer. Aston Villa making Philippe Coutinho’s loan permanent would be a big help, but is far from certain.
De Jong and those around him are well aware of the situation. Back in December, his father John told Dutch publication AD that: “I know that Barcelona need money and a big offer for Frenkie could help, but I don’t see it happening.” That was just after Laporta had let slip that De Jong “has to step it up” if he wanted to have a long-term future at the club.
After last month’s Rayo defeat, Barcelona’s technical secretary Jordi Cruyff said on Spanish TV that “De Jong is a player very valued by the club and the market”. Asked then to clarify if this meant a sale was being considered, Cruyff replied: “This is not the moment to talk about these types of things. We are here to fulfill the objectives of the club.”
A lot depends on what else happens. The summer is sure to see lots more wheeling and dealing as Alemany tries to improve the squad within the strictures of La Liga’s salary cap.
Barca will definitely need to sell players once the window opens. Were a club to offer something like €70 million for De Jong, it would be hard for Laporta and Alemany to turn down. He is also one of the top earners in the squad, on around €11 million a year after tax. The money raised and saved could then be reinvested in other areas of the team which really need strengthening — full back and centre-forward — without really harmonizing the overall quality of the team.
It is noticeable that, even though midfield is arguably the strongest area of the team, Barca have already agreed to bring in Ivory Coast international Franck Kessie from Milan on a free transfer. They have also looked at signing Carlos Soler from Valencia, trying to take advantage of the Spain international having just 12 months left on his contract to do a bargain €20 million deal.
“The signings will depend on the finances,” said Xavi on Monday. “Everything depends on money. That is tough, but it is our reality. We are clear who we want to leave. The club’s financial situation conditions us.”
The clubs most likely to be interested and with the available money to offer for De Jong this summer are both in Manchester. City have an interest going back to his Ajax days, and are looking to add a midfielder this summer with Fernandinho leaving. United are also looking closely at how to reunite De Jong with his old Ajax coach and incoming Old Trafford manager Erik ten Hag.
The more difficult part might be persuading De Jong to leave. Even when showing some frustration recently with on-pitch matters, he has always said he enjoys life in the Catalan capital and wants to stay. Earlier this year he and his partner bought a new €5 million mansion in the city’s Pedralbes area. He was one of the senior players to agree in 2020 to help the club’s finances by deferring some wages while extending his contract up to 2026. A source who knows the dressing room says persuading him to leave would be difficult, especially to a United team playing Europa League at best next season.
So there is no simple solution on any side of the problem. It is still possible for Xavi to be the Barca coach to finally fit De Jong in as a key cog in the team. But it is also conceivable that Laporta and Alemany look at the numbers and say they want him to go.
(Top photo: David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images)