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Frenkie Is the Future

A 21-year-old Dutch center back is one of the soccer world’s hottest commodities. Why? He plays defense like an attacker.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Eduardo Galeano loved Franz Beckenbauer.

“Der Kaiser” won a World Cup with West Germany, three European Cups with Bayern Munich, and two Ballon d’Ors for himself. Beckenbauer was defined by the way he eluded definition: Stereotypes said that Germans were efficient and robust; he was a creative genius with the body of a banker. Beckenbauer played as defender, the deep sweeper in a 1–3–3–3 formation, but really he was an attacker.

“Bucking the trend towards a soccer of Panzer-style strength,” the late Uruguayan poet wrote in Soccer in Sun and Shadow. “[Beckenbauer] proved that elegance can be more powerful than a tank and delicacy more penetrating than a howitzer.”

Beckenbauer was one of the first attacking liberos — the last line of defense, and the first, second, third, and fourth line of attack. Galeano described his forays forward as “like fire.” I wonder what he would’ve thought of this:

Frenkie de Jong is only 21 years old, he’s played just 30 league games with Ajax in the Dutch Eredivisie, and every team in the world wants a piece of him. There’s plenty more to come, but the future is already here.

Whenever a clear trend establishes itself in a sport, it’s fun to project its arc right up to the point of absurdity. Will everyone in the NBA eventually be 6-foot-9 with long arms, a killer jumper, and the ability to defend all five positions? Who will be the first NFL team to go through an entire season without running the ball a single time? And how soon until every play in baseball is a home run, a walk, or a strikeout and fielding ceases to matter?

But in soccer, there are few rules, scoring happens infrequently, and the lack of a salary cap has helped create a financially privileged upper class of clubs whose roster talent so greatly exceeds their competitors that they’re essentially able to play a different strategic version of the same sport. So, without a clear framework, it’s harder to imagine a heretofore incomprehensible future. And perhaps that’s why the sport I envision looks a lot like the past:

Today, the best teams in the world press … like the Dutch teams of the 1970s. The best defenders in the world contribute to the attack … like the best German defender from the 1970s. The Dutch ideal of Total Football or Soviet coach Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s concept of “universality” have continued to influence the highest levels of the sport ever since they were introduced, but we’re closer than ever to seeing them fully embraced. To counter-press effectively, teams need attackers who are both willing and able defenders. And to beat an opposing counter-press, teams need defenders who are both willing and able to pass and dribble the ball aggressively. Defenders are attackers are defenders are etc.

But we still really haven’t seen an actual attacker play as a defender. The most prominent example of an offense-first center back is probably Manchester City and England’s John Stones. As Nico Morales wrote for The Ringer during the World Cup, Stones provides most of his value when he has the ball at his feet, not when he’s fending off opposition attacks:

But Stones is still 6-foot-2, and much of his effectiveness — especially when he carries the ball out of the back — comes from how unlikely it looks. He’s a giraffe on ice skates who never falls. But with de Jong, there’s no ongoing miracle. He’s doing stepovers in his own half, and he’s dribbling through opposing strikers like there’s just one man to beat before he’s in on goal. I have never seen anything like this beyond the under-12 level, and he’s doing it against PSV, who were in the Europa League last season:

As the game has moved toward a much more frenetic style, it seems like teams have put an even greater emphasis on players who can “break the lines” — i.e. dribble or pass through a band of attackers, a band of midfielders, and a band of defenders. With it, we’ve seen the recent rise of “packing,” a stat that quantifies how many opponents a player bypasses (with a dribble or pass), and places like StatsBomb now look at “deep progressions,” which they define as “passes, dribbles, and carries into the opposition final third.” They help quantify important skills beyond creating and taking shots. Bayern Munich have dropped James Rodríguez, who’d mainly played as an attacker until recently, into a deeper midfield role; according to Impect, the creators of packing, he led all Bundesliga players at his position in bypassed opponents per game last year. Meanwhile, Arsenal’s Mesut Özil, who’s become a scapegoat at both the international and club level, was second in the Premier League in deep progressions per 90 minutes last season.

If you ever want to to understand where the sport is headed, just look at whatever Red Bull is doing with its network of teams. (One of the true wonders of late capitalism is that an energy drink company is now pushing the most popular sport in the world into a new frontier.) They helped produce Liverpool’s Naby Keïta, who played for the Leipzig and Salzburg clubs. He’s essentially the 23-year-old midfield version of de Jong:

This beautifully simple graphic from Eliot McKinley of American Soccer Analysis shows just how much the organization values vertical ball movement:

Eliot McKinley

De Jong’s game — all bombing dribbles and seam-splitting passes — both seems like the logical end point of all of these trends and also something that’s a decade ahead of its time. It’s not a coincidence that he’s at Ajax, the incubator of Total Football and one of the world’s most prolific talent factories. Few clubs would give a 21-year-old this much freedom, and few players deserve it. Lots of managers are still naturally risk-averse, and the downside of a defender losing the ball while dribbling around the midfield line — a breakaway for the opposition attack — is clearer than the upside.

However, de Jong has attempted 65 dribbles since the start of last season, and he’s lost the ball just four times — by far the best rate in the Eredivisie. On top of that, he does enough defensive work to function farther back without destroying the team’s solidity, as he’s been dribbled past just 11 times since the 2017–18 season began.

De Jong hasn’t played all of his minutes at center back, and when he moves to a bigger club in a tougher league than the Eredivisie — his transfer to Barcelona, the richest stewards of Total Football, feels like the new worst-kept secret in the sport — it seems likely that he’ll get shifted into the midfield because we’ve never really seen someone quite like him play in the back. But even when he plays in the middle third, he still drops deep and pushes the same aggressive ball movement. In his first start for the Netherlands this past weekend against France, the defending World Cup champs, in the UEFA Nations League, his jittery energy stood out. Every time he got the ball, his first thought seemed to be “How can I break this defense in half?”

And in his Dutch debut a few days earlier against Peru, he came on in the second half and showed how effective he can be at the other end of the field. Press, pass, goal:

There’s so much uncertainty when it comes to projecting a young player’s career—injuries, personal issues, nonlinear development of talent, and the volatility of every coaching and club situation. So, there’s no guarantee that de Jong will become a consistent starter at a big club like Barcelona, let alone become one of the best players in the world. But his spectacular skill set seems like something that won’t be so shocking at some point down the road.

But for now, it still is. Arie Haan played for the legendary iterations of Ajax and for the beloved Dutch team that lost to Beckenbauer’s Germany in the 1974 World Cup final. He should know, and here’s what he said, “De Jong is a better version of Franz Beckenbauer, because he has speed and passes the ball easily.”

Galeano might’ve loved Frenkie de Jong, too.