A few years ago, Ajax looked to have lost their way.
Their romanticised identity as European football’s most dependable breeding ground for the most technical, naturally-gifted young players in the game was, generally speaking, a thing of the past.
Something chronicled only in the history books alongside the likes of Johan Cruyff, Dennis Bergkamp, and Frank Rijkaard. Then came Frenkie de Jong.
In truth, Ajax’s renaissance’s predated the rise of de Jong, with the Amsterdam outfit making the final of the 2016/17 Europa League just as the young midfielder was making a first-team breakthrough.
He sat on the bench for that game against Manchester United in Stockholm as fellow bright, young talents Davinson Sanchez, Kasper Dolberg, Matthijs de Ligt, Bertrand Traore and Hakim Ziyech played from the start.
It wasn’t long before de Jong fully came to the fore, though.
At just 21 years old, he is a central figure for both club and country, already tallying 50 appearances for Ajax. Physically imposing, technically able on the ball, comfortable at taking on opponents, mature beyond his years, prudent with possession… it’s easy to see why so many consider him the future of the Dutch game.
Having missed the last two major tournaments (Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup), this is good news for the Netherlands. They need someone to build their next great team around and de Jong fits the bill. Ronald Koeman has already installed de Jong as a central pillar of his side, calling the youngster up for Netherlands' Nations League opener against world champions France last month.
He didn’t appear overwhelmed by the occasion, but right at home among such company. Kylian Mbappe even made a point of asking for his shirt after the full-time whistle.
De Jong is a distinctly modern sort of midfielder. Versatility, something that is instilled by Ajax in the majority of their youngsters, is one of his best qualities. De Jong even played as a centre back for a spell at the start of last season. This has resulted in a debate over what his position truly is.
“When I analyse Frenkie de Jong, I see a number six in him, like [Lasse] Schöne does it,” Peter Bosz, Ajax manager at the time, said of the young midfielder following his breakthrough into the senior squad at the club. “
He’s a modern midfielder, who can turn opponents so easily. He’ll start at 6 but move into the number 8 or 10 role. He’s got amazing qualities, anyone can see this.”
Others view de Jong differently, though. Dick Advocaat, for instance, believes that the 21-year-old should be used higher up the pitch. The former Oranje boss thinks not to use his vision, dribbling capacity and technical ability closer to goal would be a waste. “He’s not a number six,” Advocaat insists.
This debate is reminiscent of the one that has raged around Paul Pogba for the past few years. He too splits opinion on where he should be played, whether that be as a true number six acting as a dynamo between both boxes or as a driving force in the final third. What you believe about the Frenchman depends on your footballing outlook.
Indeed, there are comparisons to be drawn between de Jong and Pogba, not just in the way they play the game, but in the way they embody a certain ideology.
Their futures could soon intertwine too, with Manchester United one of the clubs reported to be interested in the Dutch midfielder. But if de Jong ultimately ends up at Old Trafford, it will most likely be as a replacement for Pogba, who himself has been linked with a move away.
Most recently, it’s been reported that Manchester City have joined the race for de Jong, with some even claiming that Spurs had a £45 million offer rejected over the summer. De Jong possesses the technical ability to play for someone like Pep Guardiola, but he would perhaps be better suited to working under Jurgen Klopp.
The Dutchman is a one-man midfield transition, frequently taking his team from defence into attack in the space of just a few seconds. That would lend itself to the way Liverpool play.
Links with Barcelona and Real Madrid also illustrate the esteem in which de Jong is held. Xavi Hernandez has even admitted to seeing similarities between de Jong and Sergio Busquets, calling him a “beastly talent.”
It seems to be only a matter of time until he makes that leap to the very top of the sport, earning Ajax a hefty transfer fee in the process. There is too much smoke for there to be no fire and sooner or later the young Dutchman be a shiny, new plaything for an elite club somewhere.
De Jong is one of those players who has very quickly become the most fashionable transfer target in football. Few have seen him play, at least outside the Netherlands, but that hasn’t prevented him from crossing the lips of pretty much every elite football fan across Europe. He is a case study in the ripple effect a young player can have, with such hype often detrimental to the development of said young player.
But if you get the chance to watch de Jong, do. There is a unique intrigue to catching such a talent in their formative years, when all the pieces of their game are there, but haven’t quite fully clicked into place yet. Barring any major injuries or unforeseen disruptions, full synchronisation of these traits will happen over the next few years.
De Jong isn’t a true Ajax youth product. He was signed by sporting director Marc Overmars as a teenager from Willem II, but he carries all the hallmarks of the great, Dutch club. There is a common thread that links Cruyff, Bergkamp, Rijkaard et al with Ajax’s latest prodigy.
It’s clear in the way de Jong plays the game, in the way he effortlessly shifts his weight before making a pass, in the way he knows when to take risks and when not to.
Midfielders are changing. Football works in phases and after the ‘Tiki-Taka’ era we are now entering an age which demands more vertical quality. Look at Guardiola’s use of Kevin De Bruyne at Man City, a player who would have had no role in his Barcelona team a decade ago.
De Jong is another embodiment of how the game is changing and how midfielders are being asked to play differently. What remains is that once again the future of football, at least one part of it, can be found at Ajax.