Frenkie de Jong and a question of versatility in young players

Frenkie de Jong and a question of versatility in young players

SET TO THE BACKDROP of a harsh and heavy winter sky, a January evening spectating at the Johan Cruijff Arena can feel an unforgiving endeavour. The air’s damp chill – aided by cold Grolsch and baited breath – is difficult to break through. Ajax Amsterdam, having re-discovered a much-romanticised identity, are currently labouring to crown such a feat with silverware. Having their best talents picked off with ever-increasing frequency, and without a trophy since 2014, current momentum is buoyed by tactical throwback and the subtle art of versatility.

Watching Ajax play, especially at home, carries several certainties: around 60 percent possession, dominance with a frequent risk of being caught on the break, ultimately more goals scored than conceded, and consistent swooning at the serendipitous sight of 20-year-old Frenkie de Jong marauding forward from his loosely defined defensive role.

Of course, another certainty of watching Ajax is that there will always be exciting young footballers to admire. None, however, quite represent the almost implausible yet undeniable talents of De Jong. Think what you will about the standards of the Eredivisie and the diverse success rates of its recent exports, there’s something special about Frenkie.

De Jong is, and has always been, an attack-minded midfielder. Having had his rather unique skill set honed within the youth system at Willem II, de Jong made a much-anticipated switch to Ajax in the summer of 2015. Initially loaned straight back to Willem II for 2015/16, De Jong was then recalled during the winter break and integrated into the Jong Ajax squad. Over the course of 12 months at Ajax, around the edges of the first-team squad and excelling for Jong Ajax, de Jong created a swath of admirers, and much debate around the subject of his best position.

“When I analyse Frenkie de Jong, I see a number 6 in him. Like [Lasse] Schöne does it. He’s a modern midfielder, who can turn opponents so easily. He’ll start at 6 but move into the number 8 or 10 role. He’s got amazing qualities, anyone can see this,” were the words of head coach, Peter Bosz, last season.

Dick Advocaat alluded to the source of the positional debate: “I see De Jong playing in Young Oranje on number 6. But that is a position for a passer of the ball. You want that player to play in the forwards quickly. That’s why I used Daley Blind there, to give Oranje more build up quality. Daley takes two touches max and progresses the play. Frenkie is a player who can pass well, but he prefers the dribble. Taking players on. He’s not a number 6. A player like him should be an offensive midfielder, playing higher up the park.”

Jan Boogers, a youth team coach at Willem II, appears to agree: “Frenkie always played at number 10 in my team. Always the playmaker/false striker. I sometimes played with two of them. That is a hard thing to do, because they need to be very smart in their movement and positioning. But he can pull that off. We played at tournaments against Ajax and heaps of German youth teams. We’d totally hammer them. Frenkie looked the smallest of them all but he dazzled and bamboozled them constantly.”

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Having re-discovered their artful swagger, dancing between a 4-3-3 and 3-4-3 formation under Bosz, the 2016/17 campaign started slowly but will ultimately be remembered for a bewitching and bamboozling, high intensity and attack-minded brand of football. With the exception of the Europa League final against Manchester United, Ajax brushed aside stronger and more experienced sides. For De Jong, though, there was a problem.

Despite being undeniably talented, De Jong had neither the assertiveness nor stature to claim the position of Hakim Ziyech, Ajax most attacking midfielder. He possessed insufficient experience to displace Lasse Schöne, and lacked the ruggedness to replace captain Davy Klaassen. Thus, at 20 years of age, which is old for an Ajax youngster, De Jong made do with rare starts and cameos.

Initially the trend continued under Bosz’s successor and ex-Jong Ajax manager, Marcel Keizer. However, events in central defence paved the way for an interesting solution to Ajax’s De Jong conundrum. As Davinson Sánchez departed for Tottenham, a significant chasm was left in the Ajax back-line. Impressive and mature as he is, Matthijs de Ligt is an 18-year-old central defender who benefits immensely from a stature or presence to play alongside. Ideally, that presence would come in the form of a seasoned veteran.

It is, therefore, an admirably brave use of foresight that in December 2017 Keizer recognised a player’s versatility as a unique strength, embraced his own tactical versatility, and plugged that gap with one Frenkie de Jong. Noteworthy to the extreme, it is perhaps the Eredivisie equivalent of Pep Guardiola dropping David Silva into a sweeper’s position to simultaneously solve personnel issues in central defence, and give a creative player as much of the pitch to play in as possible.

Both with and without the ball, De Jong instantly lends the impression he’s masquerading as a 35-year-old veteran. He is an excellent passer, unafraid to take a calculated risk, and engages a football with the poise of a ballet dancer. His body weight capable of shifting in a split second to illude opponents effortlessly, De Jong is often a purposeful one-man transition between defence and attack. More often than not, he is simply very intelligent with the ball at his feet.

In dropping De Jong into a libero role, and giving him license to build play from such a deep and often dangerous position, Keizer deserves credit, and has, perhaps, completed the tactical throwback implemented by Bosz. Rinus Michels would be proud. With Keizer relieved of his duties in December, new Ajax boss Erik ten Hag has kept faith with his predecessor’s positional tweak. A risk though it may be, it is a logical one.

Ajax, rarely under sustained pressure and without the challenges of European football, regularly enjoy the lion’s share of possession. Therefore De Jong is afforded plenty of time, space and opportunity to grow into a new role. Obviously, as a creative player standing at five foot nine inches, De Jong possesses few qualities associated with a stereotypical central defender. Yet boldly embracing versatility, Ajax and De Jong have made the switch a huge success. Tougher tests, notably at home to PSV and away at AZ Alkmaar where Ajax have been attacked, have been passed with flying colours.

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As football’s ever-evolving history of tactical trends ebbs and flows, positional change is nothing new. The big frontman canvassed into central defence, a winger’s lack of pace rendering a solid full-back, playmaking midfielder retiring to holding midfielder, and maturing winger filling out into a striker’s role, are but a few examples. More often than not these positional changes come about due to a player’s age. However,  positional changes at the request of the coach, or demanded by strict adherence to a tactical system, are becoming increasingly common.

Historically, these positional changes have been irreversible. Thierry Henry, once converted from winger to striker, never permanently reverted back to the wing, or dropped to full-back. Gareth Bale never looked back – quite literally. Since arriving in Manchester as a holding midfielder in 2008, Vincent Kompany has never reverted to a slightly advanced position. Andrea Pirlo, having carved out an entirely new role for himself, never played the position of a traditional number 10 again. Yet the permanence of positional changes, as De Jong’s career is sure to highlight, is also shifting.

Largely thanks to the cocktail we’ve come to appreciate and recognise as good football – one part tiki-taka, one part gegenpressing, a few leaves of Total Football, a splash of Cruyff, a dash of Pep – positional changes are becoming an increasingly fluid factor. Ajax, with their own unique tactical history, and De Jong represent a fine example, but there are many others.

Whatever your thoughts on Manchester City, their budget, number of listed substitutes, and Guardiola, he is the case study for current tactical trends. The cocktail, referenced above, is essentially the Guardiola bloodline. His obsessive and relentless approach, coupled with a prickly charm and alluring cool, render the niche of total infatuation with football tactics as mainstream.

Versatility is a key component of Manchester City’s success this season. It is the predominant force behind their attacking potency, the roles and responsibility of their full-backs, most transfer market targets, Fabian Delph’s modest reinvention, and, odd as it may sound, a lack of versatility is a significant driver behind the potentially imminent departure of Sergio Agüero.

At the Etihad and beyond, defenders may operate within an effective back three one week and a four or a five the next. Central defenders and holding midfielders become interchangeable dependent upon type of opposition, and the full-back role has pivoted from simplistic to one of the most demanding and complex positions on the pitch. Furthermore, positional changes within the confines of 90 minutes are both fluid and increasingly frequent.

Undoubtedly, the ability to excel in more than one position can have its pitfalls. Consider for a moment the England national team and its midfield over the past 20 years. What you’re pondering is effectively a study of versatility. Could individuals, both players and coaches, have engaged more with versatility to get the best out of a their collective strengths and opportunities? Almost certainly. 

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James Milner, often trumpeted for his versatility, provides another example of a potential pitfall. A delightfully rudimentary and reliable breed of footballer, Milner can ‘hold his own’ in midfield, and last season proved he can ‘more than do a job’ at left back. Now, with Andy Robertson signed, Alberto Moreno flirting with some kind of form, and Liverpool having stated some intent with preference for dynamic midfielders, Milner has become a victim of his versatility. He becomes a perfect player to have on the bench – ready and able to plug a number of gaps, but with no firm grasp on one in particular.

If current tactical trends continue, versatility will be increasingly and richly valued in every position. Roberto Firmino – all toil, pressing, and at ease leading the line or wide in a front three – has forged a role as the talisman for Liverpool of late, while Daniel Sturridge – more skillful yet less open to versatility and blending into a bigger canvas – finds himself on loan in a relegation scrap.

Versatility is as much, if not more, an intellectual pursuit as it is physical. The notion of tactical intelligence as a critical aspect of versatility not only further explains the contrasting fortunes of Firmino and Sturridge at Liverpool, but brings us nicely back to Ajax and Frenkie de Jong.

Schooled within the Dutch system of 4-3-3, almost neurotic obsession with space and tactical fluidity, De Jong is obviously an intelligent footballer. Yet while it could be easy to get swept up by every dropped shoulder or delightfully gratifying and precise through ball, and the attendance of scouts from Europe’s top football institutions, feet should remain firmly on the ground. The player is young and learning not only a new role but also about his own strengths, limitations and areas for growth.

It is a philosophical adage, and apparent truth, that growth occurs right at the edge of a comfort zone. Therefore, the great caveat of versatility, particularly in the early stages of implementation, is to expect errors. When a coach demands a player to engage with an alien role, mistakes such as Ederson’s recent clangers at Anfield, John Stones being caught in possession from time to time, and De Jong giving the ball away to concede a goal or two, will happen. So will their continued development of expertise, confidence and awareness.

This notion was eloquently detailed by Jamie Hamilton for These Football Times. Hamilton used the example of Stones and his willingness to ‘play the fool’ for Guardiola’s tactical demands at Manchester City. In many ways, Ajax’s implementation of De Jong in central defence dances uncomfortably close to a game of fools, yet so far, he has sidestepped and revolved around every moment of risk, and looks to be setting himself up for longer-term gains. One can only hope the inevitable next career step follows suit, is timed right, and comes with a club and coach combination that values versatility.

By Glenn Billingham  

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