Transfer Talk: De Jong has become Barca's maestro after snubbing United
Frenkie de Jong rejected Manchester United in order to fight for his place at Barcelona last summer — and that is turning out to be an inspired decision so far.
United boss Erik ten Hag was desperate to reunite with his former Ajax charge at Old Trafford but the classy Dutchman has since become a focal point of Xavi’s midfield for the LaLiga leaders.
As he prepares to face the Red Devils in the return leg of their Europa League knockout round play-off, we turn the spotlight on the Blaugrana playmaker’s impressive campaign.
United’s pursuit of De Jong was one of the sagas of last summer, with Ten Hag identifying the 25-year-old as the ideal addition to implement a transformation of the Red Devils' fortunes.
The midfielder was at the heart of Ajax’s sensational run to the Champions League semi-finals in 2019 under the 53-year-old and a reunion seemed to be a smart move on both sides.
De Jong had been in and out of Xavi’s starting XI last term and the LaLiga giants' financial plight meant they were willing to part with the player they handed a five-year contract to in 2019.
But rather than succumbing to pressure to make the move, the talented creator stood firm and insisted he was happy in Catalonia.
United eventually turned their attentions elsewhere by signing Christian Eriksen and Casemiro — moves that have both proved to be successful — but it is unlikely De Jong has been watching on with any sort of envy.
The Blaugrana have raced eight points clear at the top of LaLiga and the Oranje ace has been a regular presence, starting 16 of their 22 league games and missing out only once through injury.
Finding a natural heir to legendary midfield pivot Sergio Busquets has been an issue to solve for some time at the Camp Nou and De Jong has been a surprise revelation in that role.
Switching between that deeper position and a more advanced one, he has expertly dictated proceedings in the engine room and allowed burgeoning youngsters Pedri and Gavi to flourish.
No Barca player has completed more passes than the technically-gifted Dutchman in LaLiga this term, with only three beating his total of 1,076 in the division overall.
De Jong has also thrived alongside Busquets of late, with Xavi’s deployment of four midfielders — including shifting Gavi across to the right — proving effective in overloading the opposition.
A similar system was used in the first leg against United, with De Jong selected alongside Franck Kessie, and Xavi believes the tactics are getting the best out of his No21 in particular.
Xavi, 43, said: "We feel comfortable in any system. We’ve also played great games with two wingers.
"Actually, we never change much. Maybe with Frenkie and Busquets together, so with four midfielders, we lose fewer balls.
"We have found the perfect position for Frenkie. I see he is happy."
That certainly looked to be the case, particularly in the first half, against the Red Devils last week.
De Jong completed 40 passes, took 50 touches and won possession more times in the middle third (five) than anyone else on the field.
Tenacious Ten Hag
Though De Jong is enjoying his best spell in a Barcelona shirt right now, a summer departure is by no means out of the question.
His club’s pressure to balance the books remains and Barca have been strongly linked with Premier League midfield stars such as Ilkay Gundogan, Bernardo Silva and Ruben Neves.
A new face in the engine room is likely to be on the agenda once again for the Red Devils too, with Marcel Sabizter's loan deal expiring at the end of the season after arriving in January as cover for the injured Eriksen.
Ten Hag was full of praise for his former player prior to last week’s first leg at the Camp Nou, saying: "We had a class in 2019 that was a team with a lot of fascination.
"In Spain, Frenkie became even better. He’s a fantastic player. He plays out from the back, he always has time.
"It was a pleasure working with him. He would strengthen any squad in the world. He’s got unique quality."
With Pedri injured and Gavi suspended for tonight's clash, De Jong will take centre stage for his first appearance at the Theatre of Dreams.
A five-star performance could convince Old Trafford chiefs to revisit their efforts to bring him to Manchester permanently this summer.