BY Sam Wilkinson

When a player comes along and starts playing differently to everyone else it always sparks my curiosity. I like many others marvelled at the confidence and swagger of Frenkie De Jong’s performances for Ajax in the 2018-19 season. While he almost seemed to redefine the role of a holding midfielder at times and forced Barca to spend 65 million Euros on him… good is he really?

Although he has been deployed slightly higher up the field for Barca and at times on the left-hand side of a midfield three or four, De Jong for all intents and purposes is a deep lying playmaker. What I love about watching De Jong is the fearlessness he plays with.

He is a deep lying midfielder that plays like a tricky winger or clever No. 10. Watching him twist and turn under pressure and dribble his way out of trouble in front of his own box is like watching a gymnast perform back flips on the balance beam. Every bit of cleverness feels so much more daring and electrifying because of the area of the pitch he is willing to do it in. He scans the pitch before receiving with laser focus and is able to select from a multitude of receiving skills in microseconds – truly world class awareness and decision making! On the ball he feints, twists and turns with balance and dynamism, all the while using his body and arms to screen and protect the ball.

Playing with so much individualism and bravery in the deeper midfield areas, is he a risk? At times, yes. He can be prone to turnovers in dangerous areas. This has probably been more evident in his time at Barca. A player of this ilk can only really be successful when they are sky high on confidence. Doubt is the kryptonite of dribbling in any area of the pitch but especially in front of your own centre backs. Understandably the pressure of performing at Barca has probably added some doubt to his style of play. He has seldom been played as a lone holding midfielder – mainly due to Sergio Busquets still being the main man in this role, but it is easy to understand why Barca don’t totally trust him playing there.

With so much individualism in his game would he be better playing as an attacking midfielder or even winger? Possibly. He is more than capable of unlocking defences with his skill and cleverness and he displays excellent detail and disguise of pass in and around the box. While his goal scoring record is modest, he has shown glimpses of his ability to break forward and finish attacks. During his developmental years at Willem II and then Ajax he played as a CB, CAM and CM. With a typically bright Dutch tactical mind he would be more than capable of playing higher up the pitch. But I can’t help that feel a permanent move into a more forward role would take away from the excitement and daring of his game – I would probably look at this differently if he was in my team though!

What else does he have to his game? Unlike many deeper lying playmakers, he doesn’t often display a huge range of longer passing. Using the popular quarter back metaphor for this position, he is a single threat – running quarter back. His game relies heavily on driving the play up the field with runs and dribbles or linking the play with teammates through shorter passing combinations. When he does look to extend his passing range, it is normally with square or sideways switches of play. I would be interested to know if the lack of longer forward passing in his game is a result of tactical instruction or is simply just not a strength of his.

Defensively he displays great energy to hunt and press the ball – particularly in transition. This is no doubt a result of his upbringing at Ajax and his time in their first team over the last two years where they placed great emphasis on wining the ball back early and high up the pitch. But at times his individual defending is impulsive. While he doesn’t often shy away from tackling and scrapping to regain the ball, he is sometimes beaten too easily. His ability to apply the “breaks” when defending and change direction quickly is erratic at times and leads to opportunities for the opposition to exploit the space between the midfield and back lines. His energy and willingness to defend probably just about out way his missed tackles.

His concentration level is also an area that requires more focus. He can be susceptible to not tracking and picking up runs into the box and his marking from set pieces can be loose. These frailties defensively are understandable for a young player but an area of his game he must improve upon. The outstanding awareness and reading of the game he shows in possession must be transferred to his play out of possession.

So, how good Is Frenkie De Jong? After pouring through a number of his matches and sifting through countless clips……..I still don’t know! He displays world class ability on the ball and is truly unique in the way he plays the game. But he also has holes in his game and worryingly they are holes that are likely to cost goals at key moments. I still don’t know how good he is, but I know I’d pay money to watch him play every week!


Sam Wilkinson

Sam Wilkinson

I’ve been very fortunate to work with some outstanding players and coaches in the last 20 years. The greatest asset I have as a coach is the experience i’ve gained from working with these people.

While I aim for authenticity and innovation as a coach, the majority of my beliefs and ideas around coaching and player development have been influenced by these experiences.

I have been particularly lucky to have two great coaching mentors in my father Roger Wilkinson and John Cartwright. Dad and John have given me a unique insight into coaching and an appreciation for the importance of individualism in player development.