Football Features

Barcelona’s Olot draw shines light on how Frenkie de Jong could get left in limbo if Man United move falls through

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 21:06, 13 July 2022

Barcelona have started their 2022/23 pre-season with a 1-1 draw against Olot in the hills of Catalunya.

The Blaugrana took the lead when a booming pass from Marc-Andre Ter Stegen found Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who lobbed the opposing goalkeeper to register the first goal of the pre-season in style.

But late in the first-half Olot drew level when the otherwise excellent Mika Marmol gave away a penalty with a sloppy foul. Eloi Amagat stepped up and just about slid the penalty in. The second-half was goalless and the game ended in a draw.

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What was most notable, however, was how well Barcelona controlled the entire game. Obviously you’d expect that given the level of opposition, but the ease with which Barcelona stroked the ball around the park with two different sides in both halves, with plenty of youth team graduates filling in for the internationals who aren’t ready yet, was impressive.

The source of the dominance, as always, was in midfield. And this is something that should concern one of those returning internationals: Frenkie de Jong. The Dutchman has been the subject of one of the more agonising transfer sagas of the summer, with a move to Manchester United seemingly flicking on and off again more than the light switch in a house with a toddler who has just learned to climb.

The midfield performance against Olot was a pretty obvious sign that, at least in terms of football, Barcelona do not need Frenkie de Jong.

United want Frenkie as the centre-piece of their new project under Erik ten Hag, who coached him at Ajax. And while he has struggled even approach the level needed to “mark an era” at Barcelona as Xavi wants him to, he is still a player loaded with talent. Xavi has said: “if it was up to me, he would continue here for many more years.”

However, Barcelona’s financial troubles and the scandalous mismanagement of Josep Bartomeu means Frenkie’s wages are set to jump considerably over the next couple of years, which could explain why Barcelona sources have been saying they want to sell Frenkie all summer, even though on the record everyone says they want him to stay.

For his part, Frenkie also wants to stay at the club he has always spoken of as his dream side in his dream city for both he and his partner.

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But the thing about dreams is they can easily turn into nightmares. Frenkie is well within his rights to dig in his heels and refuse to move, and to make Barcelona pay him what he’s owed, but how will that work out for him as a footballer?

Frenkie had already fallen behind teenage sensations Pedri and Gavi in the central midfield heirachy, and any idea that he would eventually replace Sergio Busquets as a defensive midfielder seemed to be lost to the wind.

Against Olot, Nico Gonzalez began the match at defensive midfield and looked very comfortable. Nico is even more physically robust than Frenkie and also seems far more comfortable playing Busquets-style one-touch football to keep the ball fizzing around. He also has none of that anxiety Frenkie seems overcome with if he hasn’t gone on a mazy run for a few minutes.

So defensive midfield is out, but surely he could fight back against Gavi and Pedri? After all, Gavi is only 17! And that’s true. But this summer Barcelona have signed Franck Kessie from AC Milan and Pablo Torre from Racing Santander.

Kessie just won Serie A with the Rossoneri and on his debut against Olot played with an assurance and intelligence that Frenkie is often still searching for. Kessie was at ease pinging the ball around one-touch and he even created a great chance for Aubameyang. Again, it’s just one game, but the sheer amount of times Kessie moved the ball on first-time compared to how often Frenkie takes multiple touches was notable.

Then there’s Torre, who is another teenage terror at 19 years-old. He looked devilishly clever and produced a few moments of impish genius that hint at the mercurial midfielder that could yet burst out of this boy. He’s behind Frenkie, for now, but has huge potential.

So, yes, Frenkie could stay.

But he wouldn’t be first or second-choice defensive midfielder. And right now he faces a fight just to be rated as the third-choice central midfielder. Barcelona’s midfield is crowded, while United’s is crying out for a player of his exact talents, where he would be free to be his truest self, as he is with the Netherlands national team.

And speaking of the national team there’s a World Cup at the end of this year, and Louis van Gaal’s distaste for Manchester United notwithstanding, it’s not going to do Frenkie de Jong’s chances of having a good World Cup any help if he’s been sat on the Barcelona bench for the majority of three months.

Dreams are great, but sometimes it’s better to wake up and face reality.