Ajax are back in the Champions League group stages for the first time since the 2014–15 season, a big accomplishment for The Netherlands’ most famous club. Inevitably, European competition comes with heightened attention for Ajax’s young players. The likes of Mattjias De Ligt, Frenkie De Jong, and David Neres will all be under the spotlight. While all three of those players are intriguing in their own right, it is De Jong in particular that may be the most tantalizing.
Ajax have lined up mostly in either a 4–3–3 or a 4–2–3–1. With the acquisition of Daley Blind from Manchester United over the summer, it has meant that De Jong has transitioned from the role of a hyper aggressive ball-carrying centre-half he played as last season, to more of a deep-lying midfielder.
Ajax prefer to progress into the middle third from the left side. A common rotation for them is to see their left-sided full-back, usually Nicolas Tagliafico, positioned high up the pitch to provide width. As a result, De Jong will move into the vacated space behind Tagliafico to create something of a back three. While in possession, De Jong can either pass it horizontally to the centre-back closest to him, either Blind or De Ligt, or move the ball forward onto one of his teammates.
De Jong is a dual threat in possession from deep positions, because in addition to being an accomplished passer in tight areas, he’s a good enough athlete to carry the ball from deep areas and attract opposition markers before laying a pass off to an open teammate. His dribbling numbers in the Eredivisie last season were superb while playing the role of a libero at CB – and those numbers have been solid this campaign as he’s returned to a midfield role.
When the ball gets to the middle and final third, De Jong can act as a release valve, ensuring that the man on the ball has an out to recycle play backwards when needed. The way Ajax play mandates that the man on the ball has multiple passing options to use. If the ball is situated on De Jong’s side, he’ll shuffle over so the team isn’t at a disadvantage and possession is maintained. If the opportunity arises for him to make an incisive pass forward, he’s unafraid to try and more times than not, he’s able to make that subtle but important incision.
Another big feature of De Jong is his cognisance of where he is on the pitch, and how to position himself to receive a pass while under minimal duress from the opponent. He’ll quickly scan over his shoulder to see if there’s an opponent near him and if they’re not present, he’ll move into that empty space and make it easy for his teammates to pass him the ball to keep the attack moving. It’s this level of understanding in combination with his other gifts that makes De Jong a well-rounded deep midfielder.
Along with his offensive contributions, his combination of intellect and athleticism makes him defensively highly capable. Ajax employ a counterpress immediately after a turnover, aided by having a compact style, so there’s easier access to the ball. His defensive numbers are solid when taking into account how dominant Ajax typically are in possession. With European football moving more and more towards a proactive pressing style at the highest level, having a midfielder who knows when to press at the right moment is essential, and De Jong has shown the ability to do just that.
It’s easy to see why Frenkie De Jong has been linked with elite clubs like Tottenham and Barcelona. Spurs have benefited greatly over the years from having Mousa Dembele who can destabilize the opposition from deeper areas, but with his age and injury history, Mauricio Pochettino has to start thinking of a future without him. De Jong’s understanding of space and his style of play would fit Barcelona quite well, as they could also do with some fresh legs in midfield. For either club, getting De Jong would ensure themselves a gifted young midfielder who has the chance to become great quite soon.