Frenkie De Jong & the Zidane turn of a man who’s back at the very top


With Frenkie De Jong, it was always a question of ‘when’ and not ‘if’. But when you are made to wait for the ‘when’ a little, the ‘if’ does lurk there in a dingy corner of your thoughts.

De Jong was destined to be one of the greatest midfielders of his generation. One of the greatest full stop, perhaps. We could all see it clear as day as Ajax waltzed their way to the Champions League semi-finals in 2019.

He moved to Barcelona for an initial €75million, and he was the perfect fit, a man tailor-made by Ajax’s master outfitters for the svelte figure of the Catalan club.

Marc Overmars compared De Jong to Xavi, Xavi said De Jong could be a player to “mark an era” – which sounds like a man-marking job even Park Ji-sung would struggle to cope with, but you know what he means – then our sight became all fuzzy for a while.

Was this really the same player that we were so certain was destined for greatness? The ‘if’ returned. Might he not be?

In 2019-20, De Jong struggled for consistency, sometimes shoved out to the left of midfield to accommodate Sergio Busquets and Arturo Vidal in their favoured central roles. Endless articles in various languages wrestled with the question of why he wasn’t reproducing his Ajax form. As recently as October 2020, De Jong himself admitted he had been “mediocre” in a league game with Sevilla.

Wind forward nine months and it turns out nobody need have worried. As Frenkie De Jong is proving once and for all at these Euros, and as he showed again on Monday night against North Macedonia with a Zidane turn to make Europe gasp, it was always a question of when, not if.

Just 17 seconds had elapsed when De Jong got his first touch in the Netherlands third group game. On the right touchline at the Johan Cruyff Arena, the patch of grass where he feels most at home, he took the ball and, in the position in which he found himself, most players would have panicked.

The four men closest to him all wore the white of North Macedonia; all four of them were fresh with the adrenaline rush of the first whistle. There were no passing options and he was trapped by the line behind him.

Punt it? Hope for the best? Eff that. De Jong took a single touch with his right, pirouetted past two of his markers, then passed into the feet of Stefan De Vrij as if he were playing him the ball during a warm on the park on a Sunday morning.

It was the start of a masterclass. Throughout the game the 24-year-old was magnificent. We could pepper you with stats. To someone like De Jong, though, stats do a disservice. He is pure, unadulterated elegance. Brutal elegance at times, strong and aggressive when he needs to take the ball. But always cultivated with it.

He burst through gaps that he saw open up in the midfield. He tackled back. He displayed his rare ability to look up once, immediately pick the correct pass from all the options available and execute it perfectly. He initiated the move for the Netherlands’ third goal of the game and eighth of the tournament.

It was the third time in his nation’s three Euro 2020 games that he had put in a showing of such imperious control.

After the second one, Netherlands legend and former Real Madrid midfielder Rafael van der Vaart, who criticised De Jong earlier this season, asked his Twitter followers if they thought the young Barcelona player was already the “best holding midfield player the Netherlands has ever seen”.

The reawakening that began under Ronaldo Koeman at Barcelona throughout the season looks like it will culminate at this summers odd, Covid-blighted, pan-European major tournament. Frenkie is back on top.

If De Jong can keep this going against better opposition – and his demeanour suggest little will faze him – then the Dutch will give the best teams at this tournament a run for their money. Their pivotal midfielder will put himself in contention for the golden ball, too.

When? Well, it seems the answer is now.

By Joshua Law

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