Manchester United’s 13-week pursuit of Frenkie de Jong has raised eyebrows given the complicated financial situation of FC Barcelona.
After a “broad agreement” was reached between the clubs over a fee, the issue of De Jong’s deferred wages have brought the transfer to a relative standstill.
What has irked many fans and pundits is the apparent refusal of United to move on from the Dutchman and pursue alternatives.
Indeed, it seems like a situation of “De Jong or bust.” But is there a deeper reason for the Red Devils putting all of their eggs in one basket beyond the player having worked well under Erik ten Hag before?
“In the moment he is playing in the role as connecter, defending to offence. He is playing the role quite well. I am satisfied with his performance, with his improvement,” said Ten Hag.
“I think he can even be better. I will support him in that. He also brings energy in the team by his attitude.”
That “connecter” role between defence and attack is exactly where De Jong thrives, and while Ten Hag publicly praised Fred’s performance, there are elements of the Brazilian’s game that are lacking in performing the task to a top-class level.
In that particular match, Fred often struggled to offer himself as a passing option for his centre backs and when he did get on the ball, he had further struggles in progressing it. This has been covered at length in the United Matchday Magazine, particularly regarding the importance of a single pivot to create space for himself.
De Jong is a master at this. While he has often featured higher up the pitch under Xavi at Barcelona, Ronald Koeman, Louis van Gaal and of course Erik ten Hag have seen him as a player best suited to a deeper role in midfield because of that quality.
In this role, be it in front of a back four or a back three, as a single pivot or in a pair as at Ajax, he offers a skillset that very few in world football possess.
Using data from Smarterscout, a site that uses advanced algorithms and adjustment factors to compare data from players across leagues, we can take a look at some of his unusual metrics in the deep midfield role – we’ve used his 2020/21 season as it was the last time De Jong had over a thousand minutes in the position across a season.
Note his absurdly high ratings for Link-up play and Dribble volume – this is a player who knows how to create space and knows how to find passes to a world class level.
A score of 91 for Ball Retention ability is also astoundingly high, with that particular metric among the most important for a pivot player, particularly in a possession-centric side such as the one Ten Hag is looking to implement.
In a holding role, his Defensive Quantity is naturally low, as his job is to mop up rather than chase, but his score for Defensive Quality is more than adequate, particularly given his impressive Duel ratings.
An Attacking Output score of 64 is also on the high side for a player nominally utilised in front of the defence, and given his low value for Shot Volume, that score is mostly a direct result of his ball-progressing actions.
Ten Hag has already committed to “develop one in that position” should United’s pursuit of a holding midfielder fail to bear fruit and, as previously discussed, Fred looks like the man he will turn to should United remain frustrated in the transfer market.
So what does Fred’s Smarterscout profile look like?
Taken from the season just gone – arguably Fred’s best in a United shirt – what stands out immediately is his pressing intensity.
High scores for Disrupting Opposition Moves and Ball Recoveries pass the eye test, as we all know that the Brazilian is always good for adding hustle and bustle to the midfield.
Smarterscout has included Fred’s minutes higher up the pitch as being accrued in a “DM” role, which goes some way to explaining his very high Attacking Output rating in a season in which he scored five goals and contributed four assists.
It may also have hampered his Ball Retention score somewhat, although 35 is very low for a player in a “connecter” role, no matter how you caveat it.
A score of just 27 for Dribble volume goes some way to explaining why his passes often appear to be under pressure, while his average volume for Link up play hardly screams “metronome.”
His Smarterscout profile really paints him as a good partner to Frenkie de Jong, rather than a player who can be moulded into his role, meaning Erik ten Hag has a job on his hands if United do not reinforce the position externally.
So why haven’t Manchester United shopped around?
The answer may well be that they have and have been unsatisfied by the alternatives.
Ruben Neves, annually linked with a move to Old Trafford, has surfaced as a possible alternative, although Bruno Lage’s comments on valuing the Portuguese midfielder at £100m may make that a non-starter.
Even if the price were more reasonable, if Ten Hag is looking for a like-for-like substitute for De Jong, Neves simply does not have the profile.
He certainly looks more of a “holding” player than Fred, with Defending Quality more prevalent than Quantity, although his poor Duel Ratings would certainly be a concern, particularly should Ten Hag want Christian Eriksen and Bruno Fernandes to complete his midfield trio down the line.
The Wolverhampton Wanderers man obviously goes about his playmaking duties in a completely different way to De Jong and it may not be a way conducive to probing possession football.
Neves’ standout attribute is clearly his longer passing, with a great score of 81 for Passes towards goal suggesting as much.
Relatively low numbers for Link-up volume and an average Ball retention ability score imply that this is a player far more suited to a fast-transition side than one that wants to hold onto the ball, however.
His Attacking Output score is also heavily influenced by a high Shot Volume, meaning that in a “connector” role, Neves would likely struggle to look for those dangerous >15 yard passes between the lines, preferring either raking switches or smashed shots, to clever combinations.
A low Dribble Volume score could also be a concern in bringing the ball out from the backline – an issue Ten Hag clearly wants to resolve.
His Smarterscout profile bears far more in common with De Jong than the Wolves man as well:
A player Napoli signed to replace Jorginho was always going to score big for Link up Volume and Fabian does not disappoint in this metric, with his 96-rating putting him level with Frenkie de Jong. His Ball Retention ability – while not quite as high as the Dutchman’s – is very impressive with a score of 88.
Coming off the back of his best finishing campaign with 7 Serie A goals, his Attacking Output and Shot Volume are also well above average.
Where he scores considerably lower than De Jong is in his Dribble Volume, and while one could argue that Fabian’s Smarterscout profile paints him as a more complete midfielder, Erik ten Hag’s pursuit of De Jong would suggest that he is looking for a specialist in the “connecter” role.
To that, one could contend that Fabian has already proven that he has the dribbling acumen to fill the role.
His Smarterscout profiles from seasons gone by have shown a downward trend in his Dribble Volume – a change that has more to do with his moulding into the Jorginho role Napoli signed him for, than it seems to have with any sort of fundamental change in the player himself.
Back at Real Betis, in more of a box-to-box role, he still had the incredible Link-up Volume, but he married it with a penchant for progressive carries up the pitch as well.
While that was back in 2018, if Ten Hag wants to wind De Jong back to the player who set Europe alight at Ajax, it would not be unreasonable to suggest he could try the same with the Spaniard.
A mark against Fabian can be found in his Duel Ratings, which are worse across the board than De Jong’s. Given that many are concerned about the Barca man’s defensive capabilities as it is, a player less successful in one-on-one situations may not inspire too much confidence in defensive transitions.
With higher scores in Defensive Quantity, Fabian may also be more one to chase the ball rather than mop it up, although he has been fairly disciplined positionally at Napoli in recent times.
So why not just get Fabian?
Well, with Ten Hag facing a monumental task in turning United’s fortunes around, one cannot begrudge him pushing for a player that he knows will work from their time at Ajax, particularly given his Champions League experience – experience which Fabian has notably less of with just 530 UCL career minutes.
De Jong is also more likely to be ready to step straight in under pressure, having played under the highest level of scrutiny at Barcelona and on the international stage.
Despite the saga, the higher fee and the wage complications, there are clear reasons why De Jong makes sense.
But if August 13th comes around and Barcelona lever their way into a solution that lets them keep the playmaker – or if, God forbid, Chelsea pull one over on the Red Devils – don’t be surprised if John Murtough boards a plane to Naples.
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