Every few years, a young player emerges whose talent shines so brightly Europe’s biggest clubs fall over one another to court their services.
In the summer of 2017, Kylian Mbappé was the name on everyone’s lips and top of every major club’s wish list, with Paris Saint-Germain seeing off rival interest from Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester City and more to secure his signature.
Eden Hazard was similarly desired before he left Lille for Chelsea in 2012, while a teenage Cristiano Ronaldo generated widespread interest from elite-level clubs in 2003 before signing for Manchester United.
When the 2018/19 season ends, the summer of Frenkie de Jong will begin.
The Ajax midfielder, 21, has long seemed destined for Barcelona, stylistically fitting the mould of a Camp Nou playmaker, but Premier League trio Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United and Manchester City are all reportedly tracking De Jong.
And Real Madrid are currently believed to be in pole position to sign the £71million-rated star.
Who is Frenkie De Jong?
Ajax has a long and proud history of producing budding superstars from their famous youth system. De Jong, though, is not one such player. Instead, the lifelong Feyenoord fan was signed from Willem II in 2015, starting out in Jong Ajax, the Amsterdam club’s second string, before moving up to the senior ranks.
Six goals in 31 appearances during the 2016/17 season saw De Jong named the best young player in the Dutch second tier, and his reward was a string of cameo outings for the first team, showing glimpses of his immense gifts on Ajax’s run to the Europa League final.
A natural midfielder, De Jong’s skillset is so vast he became a regular in the centre of defence at senior level last season. The thinking behind deploying the youngster in such a deep role was that he could aid the team with his play-building and creative skills, while his personal development would be well served by the physical challenges posed in the position.
This, though, was only ever a temporary measure, as De Jong himself explained. “I see this as a short-term experiment, and I don’t want to remain in central defence throughout my career,” the newly capped Dutch international said. “I have always been a midfielder and I remain a midfielder,”
The scope of De Jong’s talent is evidenced by the legendary status of players he is often compared to, while his position-shifting has seen him likened to a wide range of the game’s greats, from Franz Beckenbauer to Andrés Iniesta, Michael Laudrup to Johan Cruyff.
Barcelona legend Xavi, who hopes De Jong will eventually join the Catalan giants, likens the 21-year-old to a former team-mate of his and current Camp Nou linchpin. “He looks like Sergio Busquets in terms of playing style,” he said.
“He’s young, but I think he can make a huge contribution [to Barcelona] now. He is seen as a beastly talent. He’s really a player to keep an eye on. De Jong’s profile is exactly what Barcelona need. A player who is technically very strong, wants to work for the team, but above all has a lot of talent.”
What are De Jong’s strengths?
“He was fantastic technically,” described Jos Borgers, De Jong’s youth coach at Willem II. “That is a natural talent. Some guys need to work a lot in order to reach a certain level, but Frenkie didn’t have to train to show his quality.”
A supreme technician, De Jong’s most obvious gifts are his passing and dribbling qualities.
The playmaker, whether stationed in defence, a deep midfield role or with freedom to roam further forward, is never hurried in possession. He weaves away from pressure with an elegance reminiscent of former Ajax star Michael Laudrup, and he possesses a similar ability to shred defences with incisive, chance-conjuring through-balls.
In the Eredivisie last season, despite featuring predominantly at centre-back, he completed an average of 3.1 dribbles per 90 minutes – at a staggering success rate of 93.1 per cent – and played 1.8 key passes per 90.
Looking more closely at De Jong in action, there also becomes apparent a high degree of intelligence, with the youngster always in the optimum position, whether with or without the ball.
Moving his team-mates around the pitch with precise passing, it is clear De Jong, despite his age, is viewed as a leader on the field for Ajax, and he doesn’t hide from the responsibility of conducting play for his side.
“He brings so much peace and always shows the intention of going forward, which creates space for other players,” former Ajax and Barcelona midfielder Ronald de Boer reported glowingly for Fox Sports.
“Frenkie also has an outstanding pass. You can’t learn that, it’s just incredible quality.”
What are De Jong’s weaknesses?
If De Jong has any weakness it is simply that he remains relatively inexperienced and untested at the very highest level.
Last season was his first as a regular starter in the senior ranks, and he still only has 50 first-team outings under his belt in all competitions with Ajax.
A regular international at all youth age groups, De Jong was given a senior Netherlands debut during September’s international break, playing 44 minutes of a friendly against Peru before competing the full 90 in a UEFA Nations League defeat to France.
While he has leapt high over every hurdle thus far, an instant natural through each step up in competition, the current campaign marks his first foray into the crucible of elite-level European club football, the Champions League.
How much will De Jong cost?
As Barcelona’s recruitment drive moved into full gear ahead of the 2018/19 season, reports in Spain suggested the La Liga champions were ready to offer as much as £45million for De Jong.
Ajax, though, remained resolute in their stance that the player would not yet be sold.
The most recent reports claim De Jong’s increased profile has seen his price tag rise to an eye-watering £71.5million, with Real Madrid prepared to table such an offer in the summer of 2019.
Where will De Jong end up?
The answer, simply, is wherever he wants. It seems, like Mbappé in 2017, De Jong has his pick of the world’s biggest clubs, all vying for his signature and ready to make him the centrepiece of their team.
Barcelona view him as the long-term heir to either Iniesta or Busquets, while rivals Madrid view the Dutchman as a tailor-made replacement for 33-year-old FIFA Best Award winner Luka Modrić.
Pep Guardiola would love to have De Jong form a key part of his fluid, pass-heavy system and Manchester City, and neighbours Manchester United have shown a willingness to spend big on any player with the marketability to match their on-field skills.
The football world is Frankie De Jong’s oyster.