Man United desperate to land Frenkie de Jong, because he’ll bring control to Hag craves

Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag sees his number one transfer target, Frenkie de Jong, as ‘an adventurer’ who is needed to transform his new team.

The Dutch coach is desperate to bring his former protégé to Old Trafford this summer and the club is doing all it can to prize De Jong away from Barcelona.

The Holland international may be an adventurer on the pitch, but he has settled in Spain and would prefer to stay at the Nou Camp, all things being equal.

Barcelona's Frenkie de Jong is the top target of Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag

Barcelona’s Frenkie de Jong is the top target of Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag

Fortunately for Ten Hag, they aren’t. Barcelona’s financial difficulties and aspirations for more big money signings, means they will let him go for £55 million, if a dispute over unpaid wages, a hangover of the Covid era, is settled.

So, while United chiefs John Murtough and Richard Arnold led the negotiations in Catalonia, it is, as legendary United boss Sir Alex Ferguson may have said, ‘squeaky bum time’ for Ten Hag as he leads his new team on their tour in Thailand, 6,000 miles away.

It is clear from the efforts being made that ten Hag is convinced he needs De Jong, 25, if he is to restore United to something resembling former glories. The midfielder is ten Hag’s solution to bring calm to a side characterized by chaos, last season.

The boss craves control in games and the remaining members of the midfield, Bruno Fernandes, Scott McTominay and Fred, as well as a returning Donny van de Beek, have not and perhaps cannot provide it.

Ten Hag coached De Jong at Ajax, utilizing the playing as a deep-lying midfielder

Ten Hag coached De Jong at Ajax, utilizing the playing as a deep-lying midfielder

CEO Richard Arnold arrived in Barcelona for a meeting with club executives over the De Jong deal

CEO Richard Arnold arrived in Barcelona for a meeting with club executives over the De Jong deal

Nemanja Matic has left, while Christian Eriksen, who will join on a three-year deal after completing his medical, is the back up option. It is De Jong, who played for ten Hag for three seasons at Ajax, who is the main man.

Last season, United mustered just 52 percent possession, their lowest figure in Premier League history, according to Total Football Analysis. It reflected Fred and McTominay’s struggle to keep the ball in tight areas and Fernandes’ profligacy and error-strewn displays.

As United’s season foundered, the desperation to succeed appeared to induce more mistakes. There was an obsession to play in the ‘United way’ with surging counter attacks, but without the quality to deliver that style.

Even the ball rushed forward, possession was squandered.

Fred and Scott McTominay have struggled to bring control and calm to the Man United midfield

While Bruno Fernandes has been profligate in possession

Fred and Scott McTominay have struggled to bring control and calm to the Man United midfield, while Bruno Fernandes has been profligate in possession

Why Erik ten Hag Believes Frenkie De Jong Can Bring Control to Man United…
Measure De Jong Fred McTominay Van de Beek Fernandes
Minutes Played 2,476 2,028 2,837 558 3,111
Pass accuracy (%) 90 85 85 83.2 75
Passes under pressure (per 90) 11.2 9.33 7.89 7.42 9.94
Target for a pass (per 90) 61.0 53.1 41.5 38.5 61.7
Miscontrol (per 90) 1.05 1.51 1.17 0.32 1.10
Loses ball after tackle (per 90) 1.20 1.29 1.21 1.77 1.39
Errors lead to shots (2021-22) 0 0 0 0 3
Carries (per 90) 50.4 45.9 39.8 32.4 47.4
Carries into last third (per 90) 2.40 0.84 1.77 0.32 2.17
Expected goals/assists (2021-22) 7.6 3.4 3.3 2.2 16.6
Source: FBREF

This is where De Jong excels. He may be an ‘adventurer’, but he is also a very safe pair of feet.

He is famously ‘press-resistant’, or in other words, it’s hard to get the ball off him; he is unerringly accurate with his passing, finding his target 90 percent of the time, and one of the best midfielders in Europe for carrying the game into the heart of the opposition.

‘You can hardly put him under pressure,’ said Ten Hag of De Jong during his time as Ajax manager. ‘That is such a great gift.’

The Dutch player’s secret in addition to his technical prowess, is scanning. He searches out the threats and opportunities, so he knows where defenders and team mates are, long before he receives the ball. He uses that knowledge to play one-touch or positions his body to protect possession and employs feints and changes of pace to wriggle out of trouble.

To gain control of a game, these qualities are invaluable and De Jong uses them to secure possession, territory and create opportunities for his team to score.

Ten Hag is desperate to gain greater control in matches than United achieved last term

Ten Hag is desperate to gain greater control in matches than United achieved last term

Comparing De Jong to United’s midfield last term, he completed more passes under pressure than any of his potential team mates and whether he passed short, mid-distance or long, he was always more accurate.

He is less likely to miss control of the ball than the United midfield with the exception of van de Beek, who hardly played for the Red Devils, and he shows for a pass as often as Fernandes, but is more likely to hold on to possession, successfully receiving passes nine times out of ten.

At Barcelona, ​​he has been pushed out to the flanks of a midfield three, with the Spanish maestro, Sergio Busquets, pulling the strings in the middle of the pitch.

It has marginalized the midfielder’s influence compared to his Ajax days, but that is almost certainly not where he will play if ten Hag gets his man. The team will be built around him, as it was at the Johan Cruyff Stadium.

Exactly how ten Hag plans to incorporate him is intriguing, but there are some clues.

At Barcelona, ​​he has been used on the flanks of a midfield three and has less influence

At Barcelona, ​​he has been used on the flanks of a midfield three and has less influence

At Ajax, the manager created a version of a 4-2-3-1 system so his star player could play in a deep midfield role and control proceedings, with the freedom to drive the team forwards, whether through passing or joining in higher up the field.

Holding midfielders are often referred to as a number six, and in the Premier League the role implies a degree of enforcing. In Holland, it is as much about possession and progression, although ten Hag realized someone still has to do the dirty work.

‘If you put him on 6, he’s away too often,’ the manager said of his Ajax side of 2018/19. ‘But you need to give him freedom, otherwise, you can’t get the best out of him.

It wasn’t an easy puzzle, so I decided to play with two number 6s and only one attacking the middle. And in this way, we can also dominate the half-space, and force opponents to choose,’ he added.

The ‘attacking mid’ was Donny van de Beek.

Ten Hag coached Donny van de Beek at Ajax, but the player is yet to find his feet in England

Ten Hag coached Donny van de Beek at Ajax, but the player is yet to find his feet in England

One of De Jong’s biggest strengths is his ability to receive, turn and carry the ball. The whole package was on display for Holland against Wales in the Nations League at the Cardiff City Stadium, last month.

At 1-1, the Dutchman took possession in the 93rd minute deep inside his own half in the left back position. Having squeezed through the press he exchanged passes before driving upfield and feeding Tyrell Malacia, who had made an overlapping run, deep in the Welsh half

Malacia, who has just arrived at United from Feyenoord for £14m, crossed for Wout Weghorst to score with an emphatic header in ‘Fergie time’.

‘That was the quality of Frenkie De Jong,’ said Louis van Gaal, the former Manchester United manager who is in charge of Holland, after the match.

It took 14 seconds to sweep from one end of the field to the other and win the game. It may have been in a Holland shirt, but it was pure Manchester United.

This was the ‘United Way’, and it needs quality and precision to execute it.

Barca manager Xavi (left) has preferred Sergi Busquets above De Jong in central midfield

Barca manager Xavi (left) has preferred Sergi Busquets above De Jong in central midfield

‘His quality is that he makes the forwards perform better,’ said ten Hag of De Jong in 2019.

‘He is a wanderer, an adventurer. He is always on the move, like a shark. With the ball, but also without the ball. You need to give him freedom, otherwise you can’t get the best out of him.’

Ten Hag set his Ajax side up to play to his protege’s strengths because he knew that the ability to break the lines, thread a pass, beat the press, upset the structure of the opposition, is what counts against the best teams.

In De Jong, United would have a player who has the potential to dictate to Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea. Someone who could change the narrative mid match on his day.

At Barcelona he has been forced to play further forwards, but he has shown he can still thrive, retain the ball in the tightest spaces high up the pitch and penetrate with his passing.

In Spain last season, De Jong’s expected goals and assists are higher than all of his potential midfield colleagues, except Fernandes; he even beats Eriksen.

Fred could play a role in United's midfield, playing deep alongside De Jong for defensive cover

Fred could play a role in United’s midfield, playing deep alongside De Jong for defensive cover

If De Jong comes to Old Trafford, ten Hag will almost certainly have to find him a partner in the holding role.

Analysts highlight his defensive shortcomings. He reads the game well and makes tackles and interceptions, but he can lose track of runners and has even been accused of lacking the required work rate out of possession.

The energy of Fred or the destructive force of McTominay could provide a solution, both of whom make plenty more tackles, blocks, interceptions and ball recoveries than the Dutchman.

Whoever it is would need to have positional discipline, which points more to McTominay than Fred, so it was interesting to hear the Scot praising his manager over the structure he is imposing on United’s play in training.

‘He’s got an idea of ​​the way he wants to play, and he executes it really, really well in terms of getting across to the players,’ McTominay told United Daily.

‘The philosophy and the ideas of the style of play for us [are] clear to see,’ he added.

‘It’s up to us as players now to really take the message on board and push with everything we’ve got, all year.’

The only question is, will the adventurer find his way to Old Trafford in time?

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