MANCHESTER United’s new coach Eric ten Hag is determined to sign Frenkie de Jong from Barcelona.
Is it just because United have needed a new midfield for seasons or is De Jong much more than just a replacement for Paul Pogba?
As Manchester United transition from their interim coach Ralf Rangnick to their permanent appointment, former Ajax head coach Eric ten Hag, the big question is who will they buy?
There are key areas where the club need to add quality but part of this will also be informed by the players who are leaving the first-team unit.
The biggest area of weakness is the midfield where Pogba, Nemanja Matic and Juan Mata are leaving.
Ten Hag is determined to make the Dutch international Frenkie de Jong from Barcelona the first signing of his reign as manager.
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De Jong enjoyed a good working relationship with Ten Hag when the two of them were together at Ajax.
So what would De Jong bring to Old Trafford and why is Ten Hag so keen on recruiting him.
There are three main ways he would improve Man Utd next season, and it’s not great news for Bruno Fernandes.
1. He would drive United forward
Frenkie de Jong is perhaps best described in the modern game as an ‘8’ in that he wants to play as one of the more advanced midfield players.
If Ten Hag chooses to play in a 4-2-3-1 in order to play Bruno Fernandes as the ‘10’ then De Jong can play as one of two in a double pivot at the base of the midfield although he will break out and push forward in possession.
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At Ajax, there were times in which De Jong was even used as a ball-carrying central defender, although that is not a role that we would expect to see recreated were he to move to Manchester.
One of De Jong’s biggest strengths is his ability to carry the ball dynamically in central areas of the pitch.
He is a superb technical footballer and his ball control and balance are top-level.
As such he moves with the ball centrally and has the ability to engage and drive past opposition midfielders.
This ability is hugely disruptive for opposition teams as they need to commit more than one defensive player towards the ball when De Jong is in possession and this in turn creates space for his teammates.
Crucially, when moving in possession of the ball De Jong will keep his head up and look for opportunities to play line-breaking passes.
This ability to drive in possession or find progressive or line breaking passes is also extremely important when his side are in the build-up phase of the game.
De Jong will drop back and receive from his central defenders or fullbacks as the opposition look to press and engage high.
From these areas, he can then drive forwards or find ways to move the ball to the next level with quality.
2. He perfectly suits Ten Hag’s style
A large part of the problem that affected United over the course of last season was that they had little continuity in terms of the tactical principles that they would use.
When they switched coaches from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to Ralf Rangnick mid-season we thought there would be an implementation of the Red Bull Leipzig style of play which requires vertical passing and aggressive pressing.
That did not, however, happen as the German coach realised that he did not have the players that would fit that style and as such United were caught between styles with no clear tactical identity.
They seemed to want to play from the back and build-up through the thirds of the pitch but the lack of a true passer in the midfield area, especially when Fred was injured, made this extremely difficult.
As they would look to play out from the back we would see a clear tendency to ignore the central midfielders or at least to only give the ball to them if it was absolutely necessary.
This was particularly true when Fred was injured.
In these areas, we would expect to see De Jong demanding possession of the ball.
When the Dutchman receives the ball in these areas he does so on the half-turn with the threat to take a touch and drive it past the opposition midfield.
If the opposition players get too tight hen De Jong can roll them and drive into the space.
If the opposition sit off, however, De Jong will take possession of the ball and find driven passes to break the line of pressure and move his team into the midfield.
By adding a dynamic ball carrier to their midfield unit, as well as a player who has elite ball progression numbers, United will be better placed to play the style of play that Ten Hag is likely to demand of his team.
3. He can control the game in the final third
Frenkie de Jong is also a player who can take control of the game as they move into the final third.
His ability to drive in possession but also to play with his head up adds something that the United midfield currently does not have.
His decision-making in terms of when to take the ball and drive in possession and when to play short passes to shift the angle and move the opposition player is typically very good.
De Jong is similar in many ways to the Liverpool and Spain midfielder Thiago in that his first instinct in possession of the ball is always to find ways to drive the play forward and to move the opposition back.
When United are in the more established attacking phase we would see De Jong look to press forwards and find pockets of space behind the opposition midfield or in the channels.
From these areas, he would be able to receive the ball on the half-turn before really attacking the penalty area.
His ability to drive with the ball forces the opposition players to engage him and he has the ability to play through the pressure or find passes into space on the far side of the field should he want to change the angle and the point of the attack.
When De Jong breaks into the penalty area he retains the ability to find creative passing angles but he also provides huge danger by holding the ball and looking to create shooting angles.
Will he be United’s Thiago or another Donny van der Beek?
Well, if United do splash a lot of cash on a player who has already said he’s quite happy staying at Barca, they are going to be hoping he is certainly more Thiago than Donny.
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De Jong ticks a lot of boxes for United in general but then even more so when it comes to what Ten Hag is likely to try and do on the pitch.
And he could also bring out the best in Van der Beek, which would be an achievement in itself.
For more tactical analysis, scouting and stunning data visuals head over to Total Football Analysis
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