Barcelona’s Frenkie de Jong remains a top transfer target for Manchester United and Erik ten Hag already knows how to get the best out of him and his former teammate
Signing De Jong is thought to be a priority for new United boss Erik ten Hag, who worked closely with his fellow Dutchman during his time managing in his homeland. The elegant midfielder was a key cog within the famous 2018/19 Ajax side that reached the Champions League semi-finals and it is thought Ten Hag wants to build his midfield around him once again.
With that in mind, Mirror Football has taken a look at how Ten Hag may line his United side up in order to get the best from De Jong next season. Based on the manager’s favoured formation during his time at Ajax, both with and without De Jong, we can assume with some certainty that United will use a 4-2-3-1 formation next season.
De Jong would more than likely operate as part of a double-pivot, potentially on the right. It is often how he played at Ajax and an area of the pitch that presents him with the best platform to thrive.
Having two central midfielders rather than one provides the team with better defensive cover, as De Jong is usually at his best when allowed a more free-roaming role, as stated by Ten Hag himself during an interview with Voetbal International International in 2019.
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“His quality is that he ensures that the ball gets into the final third,” the manager said of De Jong. “He is an adventurer, always on the move. Often with the ball, sometimes without the ball. Can you put him at six as the only link? He leaves the middle of the pitch too often for that. And if you don’t give him the freedom to go forward, you won’t get the best out of his game.”
While there is little doubt the 25-year-old is also an elite passer of the ball who can be the crucial cog in United’s build-up play next season, his “best” – as Ten Hag alluded to – is his ball-carrying capability.
You will regularly see him picking the ball from deep areas before gliding past opponents and through the lines into the final third. Notably, no Barcelona midfielder averaged more progressive carries than him last season according to Wyscout (2.39 per 90).
Based on his strengths, it is likely a more defensively-robust partner will be required to play alongside him. From the current squad, either Fred or Scott McTominay are best suited for such a role, again leading to more questions than answers about De Jong’s former teammate Donny van de Beek.
Many United fans are hoping Ten Hag’s arrival can represent a new start for Van de Beek and some believe he could be the ideal partner for De Jong in midfield next season. However, the duo’s profiles don’t really complement each other, at least as a double-pivot partnership, which is why we never really saw this at Ajax.
Instead, one way we might see Van de Beek prosper is by playing further forward in the No.10 role. It is a position he knows well, and although Bruno Fernandes will be ahead of Van de Beek in the pecking order initially, the Portugal international’s form across the back end of the last campaign was concerning.
A slow start to next season could see him lose his place in the side, especially as Ten Hag will be aware of the chemistry Van de Beek and De Jong share, stretching back to coming through at Ajax’s academy together. The Dutch pair linking up on the pitch together again could not only prove beneficial to them, but also to United in the long term.