No Pedri, no Gavi but Frenkie says relax! De Jong finally arrives in Manchester as Barca's main midfield man
In a parallel universe, Frenkie de Jong is preparing to line out for Manchester United in Thursday night's Europa League clash with Barcelona.
Instead, De Jong will step onto the Old Trafford turf as a visiting player, tasked with leading the Blaugrana past his biggest suitor.
The Netherlands international seemed poised to join United last summer and would have become a central figure in Erik ten Hag's revolution. However, De Jong stayed at Camp Nou and has been unable to nail down a starting spot in Xavi's line-up.
That has changed in recent weeks, with a series of injuries and tactical tweaks handing the Dutchman a more obvious role.
Today, De Jong finally has the responsibility that Man Utd would have handed him, with the 25-year-old expected to be charged with controlling the Barca midfield in the absence of star duo Gavi and Pedri.
Everything was well in the Barcelona midfield for five weeks. Xavi had found the perfect tactical equilibrium, weaving four central midfielders into a system, while also keeping his attackers happy.
Tellingly, Barcelona are yet to lose when Gavi, Pedri, De Jong and Sergio Busquets all start.
Pedri is something special 💫 pic.twitter.com/HkPXOEllV0— GOAL (@goal) February 12, 2023
However, injuries struck. Busquets was the first to go. Pedri was next. And then, Gavi picked up an ill-advised yellow card that has ruled him out for Thursday.
And while Busquets has returned, Barca must plug holes with a series of imperfect replacements and ageing stalwarts because, as impressive as De Jong undoubtedly is, he cannot be everywhere.
Nonetheless, he will be in the spotlight, the star of his own show. It’s the kind of responsibility he’s embraced with aplomb in the past. It is, in fact, why Barca bought him back in 2019, and why Ten Hag still wants him now.
He knows just how brilliant his compatriot can be. He was on the Ajax bench the night De Jong dominated Europe's best midfield at the Santiago Bernabeu.
During that famous 4-1 win at Real Madrid, De Jong passed more efficiently than Toni Kroos, dribbled more effectively than Luka Modric, and intercepted more than Casemiro.
That performance is etched into Ajax folklore, a coming-of-age display from a 21-year-old that made the whole of Europe sit up and take notice.
Four years on, De Jong will have to do something similar at an equally iconic venue.
And that player is still there. De Jong belatedly arrives at Old Trafford in a rich vein of form.
There's been a real rhythm to De Jong's play of late, pacing the Barca attack with his incisive passing, while also embarking on the occasional adventurous, slaloming run to give Xavi's Liga leaders something extra going forward.
He was magnificent in the opening 45 minutes of the first leg, cutting through the Man Utd midfield with ease — his influence growing even as Pedri went off injured.
However, at half time, Ten Hag adapted to stop his potential pupil, limiting De Jong's influence with some tactical adjustments.
This wasn't how Erik ten Hag envisaged his reunion with Frenkie de Jong 😅 pic.twitter.com/QxtSgtLvOy— GOAL (@goal) November 7, 2022
It was only appropriate that his former manager could piece together a tactical puzzle to phase De Jong out of the game, just as he was lifting his team into it.
And therein lies the challenge for De Jong on Thursday night. He is shouldered with the burden of reaching his best against the manager that knows him better than anyone. Ten Hag understands De Jong's movements; his feints, his turns and his preferred passes. That will undoubtedly make things difficult.
But Ten Hag has also never dealt with a Barcelona midfield in which De Jong is given a central role.
Xavi will, of course, have developed something of a tactical plan here. He doesn't have Gavi or Pedri at his disposal, and although Busquets is in line to start, that perfect balance is gone. That means he will have to give De Jong a starring role, charged with a flurry of responsibilities — with no team-mates to hide behind.
The biggest adjustment could be in the attacking third.
Pedri and Gavi have sneakily developed into goalscorers this year, padding Robert Lewandowski's expected excellence in front of goal with steady contributions of their own. With the duo out, De Jong might have to make those signature forward runs with regularity.
It seems likely that Xavi will switch to a more Barcelona-esque 4-3-3, with De Jong as a box-to-box midfielder; the very same role he thrived in under Ten Hag. He will have to be on the ball more, dictate play more consistently and turn in a near-perfect showing.
Essentially, the new De Jong might have to deliver a performance like the De Jong of old, at the very stadium most assumed he might spend the next few years.
If he does, Barca's European hopes might remain alive. But if Ten Hag once again neutralises his former protégé, then De Jong's first trip to the Theatre of Dreams could prove a nightmare.