He’s probably the most talented young player we have. Forget Vilhena, Hendrix, Bazoer. It’s Frenkie de Jong. When Rob Janssen (uber agent to the top Dutch players) launched his book “Deal!” a who’s who of Dutch football gathered and one of the key topics was Frenkie de Jong. Everyone, from Henk ten Cate to Kees Jansma, from Dennis Bergkamp to Edwin van der Sar, they all talked about “how good De Jong is”. But… the only problem: he doesn’t play too much for Ajax.
He was developed at Willem II. He was on the scouting list of Ajax and PSV for years but wanted to wait with his big move. Once he did, he picked Ajax. That was his only choice really, and along side Appie Nouri, Justin Kluivert and Donny van de Beek, de Jong developed into one of the Dutch hot properties.
Within a year, all the pundits and analysts recognised his “specialness” and in times of Oranje troubles, some even wanted him to wear the orange jersey already. Frenkie de Jong, the saviour…
But, we’re well into the new season and it’s still Lasse Schone playing in midfield for Ajax. The veteran Dane is keeping De Jong out. Ajax has played around with a 3-4-3 to accomodate a midfield of Ziyech, Van de Beek, Schone and De Jong but not with convincing success.
The saviour turned into the problem. Where does Frenkie de Jong need to play?
Peter Bosz (former Ajax coach): “When I analyse Frenkie de Jong, I see a number 6 in him. Like Schone does it. He’s a modern midfielder, who can turn opponents so easily. He’ll start at six but move into the number 8 or 10 role. He’s got amazing qualities, anyone can see this.”
Dick Advocaat (former NT manager): “I see De Jong playing in Young Oranje on #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 #6. A player like him should be an offensive midfielder, playing higher up the park.”
Kenneth Perez (ex Ajax player): “I think he’s a number 6. The class oozes out of him. He can go far. But he needs to improve still. I think he lacks the ability to score. He’s the creator. I’d like him on #6.”
So everyone recognises his talent and everyone wants to see him play. But where?
It seems the strength of the opponent could well be a decisive factor. The number 6 in Ajax is the dreh-und-angel-punkt. The player who turns defence into attack. The pivot. He’s good at finding space and being available as an option. His eyes always looking forward. Once De Jong has the ball, he strides forward, usually taking on an opponent and creating the man-more situation and being important in the final third. When he came on against Roda JC in the second half, he created three goals and got himself positioned between Ziyech and Van de Beek and at times amongst the forwards.
When Ajax played the 3-4-3 vs Twente, he played as the forward libero. A number 4. He started next to Mathijs de Ligt and moved into midfield when able. But he’ll always take the risk. Even on his own half, he has so much confidence in his abilities that he’ll take on opponents, where the risk of loss of possession is high. He’s not a physical player and in a defensive role, he could get into trouble. Should the Ajax coach require him to be a simple passer of the ball, his best qualities are unused. It’s a continuous debate around the player.
Other experts believe De Jong should be play on the #8 or #10 spot. His actions are key in the third half. His risk will be diminished when he tries players on high up the park. He will not panic in the tight spaces and can play himself out of trouble to open up the opponent’s defence. But he likes the ball in his feet. He’s not the man to make penetrative runs into the box, like Davy Klaassen did. Donny van de Beek has this quality more and more, recognising the moment to dart forward and become the leader of the line.
This is the season for De Jong to establish himself. He lacks the legs for the #8 position (Van de Beek) and has too many footballing qualities for the #6 role. It seems Ziyech’s position is ideal for De Jong, but the Moroccan playmaker seems to have a tight grip on his spot. The former Heerenveen playmaker is destined to leave Ajax at the end of this season, which could be perfect for Frenkie.
He is aware of the interest of big clubs, like Chelsea, Man City and Bayern Munich but will need to have at least one great season in Holland to have the reputation that will allow him a nice spot in the dressing room there and not come in as another young prospect (De Bruyne > Chelsea, Salah > Chelsea, Douglas > Bayern, Memphis > ManU).
He himself is quite adamant and fiesty in interviews. “I’m generally happy at Ajax. This is my club now. But, I do need to play. I believe I should be in the team. As long as I’m not playing regularly, I’m not happy.”
As a youth player, Willem II and Feyenoord wanted his services. Tilburg and Rotterdam. Frenkie’s home town was smack in the middle. His parents were Feyenoord fans and hoped he’d go to Rotterdam. But after a training week at both club, headstrong Frenkie chose Willem II.
This character trait is part of who he is. His first youth coach Robbie Hendriks: “He is the type of player that doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing. He doesn’t have a fixed plan when the ball comes to him, which means he can improvise. If the defender steps in, he turns him, if the defenders drops back, he’ll take him on. He senses the movement around him and acts instinctively. But he is not easy to coach. You tell him to go left, he’ll probably go right.”
Jos Bogers, the youth coach at Willem II’s under 16 team. “Some players are made players. They practice and practice to get a certain touch right, or a move or a shot. Frenkie is a natural. That velvet technique, it’s all God given. I have never seen a better talent in my life. And he’s a dominant leader too. Don’t make a mistake. He looks like a kid, and he smiles sweetly, but he can be dominating off the pitch. With a glance, a word. The players always listened. It’s what Cruyff had. When he was 17 years old, he directed the older players already and it was accepted. I see the same with Frenkie.”
Jos Bogers checks his notes. “Frenkie always played at #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.”
Marc Overmars, Ajax’ technical director, is convinced. It was him who scouted De Jong in a game of Ajax under 16. “I’m no scout. That is not my role. But obviously, when I watch games, I can spot talent and special players. He came on in that game, 5 years ago, as a sub. But it took three touches for me to see his specialness. He was small, thin with really vulnerable legs. But his skill. The way he took on the ball, first touch, the turn and the follow through passing. He had “it”. Anyone could see. When I see a player like him, he becomes a project for me. I sink my teeth in it and won’t let go.”
And four years later, Frenkie de Jong became an Ajax player.
Ali Dursun, the father of another youthful talent at Willem II and youth coach, recognised the special player as well. “Whenever my son played, Frenkie usually played for another team on the other pitch. I realised more and more that when I went to watch my son, my eyes would drift to the other pitch to see Frenkie play.” Dursun would become Frenkie’s mentor. He would introduce himself to Frenkie’s parents and committed to being Frenkie’s manager. “I would sort everything out for Frenkie off the pitch, so he could focus on the game. I became his trusted advisor. Many clubs courted De Jong and all had to talk to Dursun who could cut through the promises and offers and made sure Frenkie kept his feet solid on the ground.
Presented at Ajax, with Ali Gundur
Frenkie: “I was overwhelmed. Suddenly all these people want to talk to you, and the local media started to want attention and these agents would show up… I trust Ali. I asked him to be at my side, also when we would play abroad, he’d travel along. He knows exactly what I want and he’ll take care of it. I don’t want to go to another country. I want to succeed at Ajax. And be important there. We’ll see what happens after.”
Frenkie’s dad John: “We sometimes have to nudge him to spend some of his money. He’s not interested in cars, in fashion, in iphones… He came home with a Mercedes Benz, an Ajax lease car, and he parked it in another suburb as he was embarrassed to drive such a car. His mates shop at the PC Hooftstraat in Amsterdam, Frenkie goes to H&M. I even remember him winning the Player of the Tournament trophie one year. After the tournament, we went to see him grandparents, and guess what? He leaves the trophy in the car. Too humble to show the thing to his grandparents. He’s very modest.”
Ajax made an impression on Frenkie. “I always liked Ajax. The arrogance, the self consciousness, the football, that long list of tremendous talent that they produced. It’s the top, in Holland. And when I went there to talk, with Ali, we got all the big guns in the room, which was amazing. Dennis Bergkamp came to introduce himself, Marc Overmars, Frank de Boer, Jaap Stam… That made an impression on me.”
He had a cameo in the EL finals against Man United and also impressed playing on artificial grass where most players struggle. Even Football Oracle and legend Willem van Hanegem felt De Jong could be the missing link in Oranje. “I’ll be honest, when someone like him says that, it does do something within you… It’s great to hear that, but at the same time, it’s not relevant. In Holland, young players are being praised very early and when it gets harder everyone drops you like a stone. I try to focus on my game. The rest is noise, really.”
The youngster made his weakness – he was quite small and tiny until he turned 17 – and used his technique and skill to play himself out of trouble. “I stayed at Willem II longer than most would. And it was good. We were never the top team, we were always getting a lot of resistance and we had to battle and be strong to survive. It helped me a lot. Also, I read about Johan Cruyff and his ideas of playing with a smaller ball to improve your ball technique. This is what my mates and I did, we got a size 3 ball instead of 5 and played with that. After that, using the senior size ball only made the game easier.”
De Jong also has an opinion about the crisis in Dutch football. “I need to be cautious here, but I think the youth development system isn’t great. I see youth coaches instructing players to touch the ball twice and pass it on. And to not lose possession. So obviously, players look for the easy option. The square ball. Or back to the goalie. I never listened to that. I play on intuition. I will take on a player wherever on the pitch, if I can see that I can create a man more situation this way. I think the positioning game we like in Holland has been over-exaggerated. It’s all about possession. I like risk. I like the forward pass. I like adventure. And at Ajax, it’s stimulated and I notice the fans like it too. And sure, when it works, I hear that people like my grace and elegance on the pitch. But when it doesn’t, they tell me I look arrogant, uninterested and complacent. But it’s the same me, hahaha. But, I am a very positive and optimistic guy. I look forward to great things, with Ajax, with myself and I think life is great.”