It's now or never, Frenkie! De Jong's final chance to save his Barcelona career
The tackle that injured Sergio Busquets was fairly innocuous. The veteran midfielder tried to shrug off Sevilla's Youssef En-Nesyri, and in doing so jammed his right ankle against the Camp Nou turf. Tests later revealed that the 36-year-old would be out for a few weeks with ankle ligament damage, missing key matches as the Blaugrana go in search of a treble of trophies.
For the rest of the game, manager Xavi entrusted Frenkie de Jong to play in Busquets' spot, utilising him as a deep-lying midfielder. And the Dutch international was magnificent, offering every part of his Spanish counterpart's defensive acumen, while also providing the kind of metronomic, progressive passing that Barca have long coveted from the position.
It was a statement of intent, a performance that suggested that De Jong might just have found a clear role at the club he's been at since 2019. And now, with Busquets sidelined, the former Ajax star has a chance to prove that he belongs at Barca long term, serving as the heir apparent to a club legend.
This all seemed very unlikely last summer. De Jong found himself benched throughout Barcelona's pre-season tour of the United States, while Xavi was peppered with questions every week about the midfielder's future.
Manchester United are closing in on an agreement with Barcelona for Frenkie de Jong ✍️ pic.twitter.com/Db1ArxYKHy— GOAL (@goal) June 25, 2022
And for good reason. De Jong was on the brink of a move to Manchester United, with some reports in the United Kingdom suggesting that he was keen to reunite with former manager Erik ten Hag and the Red Devils ready to shell out €80 million (£71m/$85m) for his services.
Then came an unexpected change. De Jong pledged his future to Barcelona, declared himself a "lifelong cule", and insisted that he wanted to fight for a spot in Xavi's lineup. In December, Barca president Joan Laporta rubbished the notion that he was ever going to sell the player, claiming that the near-completion of a massive deal was just idle gossip.
"He is one of the mainstays we have, he is one of the great young talents and called to be one of the leaders of the team," Laporta told Barca TV. "I never wanted to sell Frenkie."
The extent of the truth of Laporta's comments is largely irrelevant because De Jong has been a regular this season. He forced his way into the picture well before Busquets' injury, starting 14 of 18 La Liga contests. It's an impressive feat, especially given Xavi has four starting-level midfielders to cram into a three-man midfield.
De Jong, theoretically, is usually the man to leave out. Youngsters Gavi and Pedri are locked-in starters every game - and the stars of Barca's midfield for the foreseeable future. Busquets, although ageing and flawed in transition, still offers the perfect level of defensive cover for Barca's electric youngsters to get forward.
That leaves no obvious place for De Jong. For a while, he was fortunate to see the pitch. Various knocks to central midfielders and Xavi's desire to rotate meant that he was on the field by necessity.
But now, with a long-term injury to his main competitor, De Jong has his chance. Barcelona want Busquets to stay for another year, despite the veteran's attention turning to a potential Inter Miami move. And Xavi confirmed that as long as Busquets is at Barcelona, he will be considered a first-team regular. Either way, he will need replacing at some point in the next 18 months.
Sergio Busquets made his Barcelona debut on this day in 2008, he's still going strong 14 years later 🔵 🔴 pic.twitter.com/T5mO5Kcucp— GOAL (@goal) September 13, 2022
So, De Jong has the chance to show that they don't need to replace Busquets with a new signing this summer. Still, the Netherlands star is not the same type of player, which could be a real problem.
Busquets has set the blueprint for the modern number six. Strong, defensively intelligent, but also incredibly precise in possession, he is the very definition of an unspectacular but immensely effective player. He does everything that you can't see.
Former Spain coach Vincent del Bosque perhaps articulated it best: "You watch the game, you don’t see Busquets. You watch Busquets, you see the whole game," he said.
De Jong, meanwhile, wants the cameras to be on him. He's all action, commanding attention with flashy feints, dribbles and risky passes.
These are both great midfielders in their own right. They just play the game very differently. It makes sense, then, that Barca have been linked with signing the Busquets-like Martin Zubimendi of Real Sociedad in the coming months.
But the Blaugrana could perhaps bank on the type of player De Jong might become. And for passages against Sevilla, the potential was there. He rarely advanced forward, made six defensive recoveries, and was only dribbled past once. For a brief moment, it seemed like Busquets 2.0 might be sitting at the base of Barca's midfield.
And then there's the additional quality that De Jong could bring. Barca fans have lamented Busquets' declining athleticism in recent years, with the midfielder's lack of legs costing the team on the break. De Jong is a more natural athlete, and, at 25, isn't going to burn out anytime soon.
He's also a far better dribbler and short-range passer than Busquets. If Xavi is to move to the kind of free-flowing, unpredictable style that his current squad of young, creative players would benefit from, De Jong would be a seamless fit.
There is also an argument to be made that he can learn; he still has a lot of development left, and who better to improve under than one of the game's great midfielders?
The best performance of De Jong's career came for Ajax against Real Madrid in the Champions League in 2019. There is one passage, 20 minutes in, where he wins the ball back and sends Luka Modric to the ground with a glitzy change of direction. It was on that performance that many took notice, with the then-22-year-old running rings around the world's most dominant midfield trio.
For 90 minutes, he played as a lone number six, running the game from a deep-lying position. It was a hint of the player he could become, a world-class defensive midfielder announcing himself on the biggest stage.
At Barca, blocked by Busquets, he has never been given the opportunity to replicate it. And now, with exit rumours swirling again, De Jong finally has his chance. One freak ankle roll could save his Barcelona career.