Villarreal 0-1 Barcelona: Frenkie de Jong finds his best in the best possible week for Barca

Some positions form the focus around which an entire team revolves. At Barcelona, ​​this position is the defensive linchpin.

Sergio Busquets has been Barca’s compass in the role since 2008. Now that he is 34 years old, it is becoming increasingly important for the team to find his future successor. Frenkie de Jong knows this and had another opportunity to plead his case on Sunday when Busquets was injured.

In the pre-match press conference, Xavi praised him but some critics said he wasn’t suitable for the position. And a trip to Villarreal, who beat Real Madrid 2-1 at home in January but have since slumped in form, has probably never been easy.

De Jong’s moment had come. It was also an important night for Barca. The potential rewards of victory were clear; Xavi’s side would be 11 points clear of Madrid, who play bottom-placed Elche at home on Wednesday.

The Dutchman’s performance in Sunday’s 1-0 win – secured by a superbly engineered Pedri goal – was tied to his best performance in every facet of his game. He played a big part in Barca’s eighth straight win in all competitions.

De Jong was intense in his pressing, especially in the first half when he made 17 restarts (his average per game is six, the same as Busquets). From set pieces and with the ball out of bounds, he could be seen setting up defences, directing and encouraging the other midfielders, a leader on the field.

Watching the way he was constantly scanning, looking up to see where his teammates were positioned, reminded you of Xavi when he was a player. The result? When receiving the ball, he always had a clear idea of ​​​​the next pass.

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With Franck Kessie on the left, Barca played a double pivot on Sunday that also got the best of De Jong up front. While Kessie tended to stay closer to defense and help Alejandro Balde down the left flank, de Jong was given more freedom on the right to roam and join the attack 50.55 percent of Barca’s offensive moves came from his side. But as his touch map shows, he’s been everywhere.

De Jong (No. 21) had a more advanced average position than Kessie (19)

After the match, Xavi once again praised the Dutchman.

“The key to his resurgence is the trust we put in him,” the manager said. “He feels happy, comfortable and important in the team. He’s a total midfielder and has everything he needs to perform well.”

De Jong seems to be at his best and it’s the best possible week for Barca; with the return of the Europa League and with the exclusion of Busquets.

Indeed, looking back a few months ago, the picture was quite different. There were many doubts if De Jong would play at Barca at all. All summer he has been linked with Manchester United, the side he will face on Thursday.

“I don’t know what will happen to De Jong. Anything can happen until August 31st. He knows what I think and what the club wants and needs. Of course I’m counting on him, he’s a great player,” said Xavi in ​​early August.

De Jong wanted to stay at Barca but the club considered the possibility of selling him due to his critical economic situation. It made good business sense; His salary was very high and he had a good market value. United and their manager Erik Ten Hag, De Jong’s former coach at Ajax, wanted him.

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In July, Barca had written to De Jong claiming that the terms given to him by the club’s former board were criminal and had given rise to legal action against those involved. In addition, details of his contract were leaked, which the Dutchman did not like.

“A newspaper published things about my contract. I didn’t leak it and there was only one other party who also had the contract,” De Jong told Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf in a November interview.

“It had to come from the club and you think: It doesn’t have to be. It irritated me that the club did that.”

Eventually the situation was resolved and De Jong stayed. And especially since the World Cup he has shown really good performances.

When the domestic season resumed after Qatar in 2022, Xavi began using a four-man midfielder system from which Busquets and De Jong have particularly benefited. De Jong feels more comfortable and Busquets feels more protected. It’s helped Barca in the here and now, but it’s also the perfect formula for the future.

Busquets had warned that this season could be his last at Barca. Transitioning to a new defensive pivot seemed to be a real problem. But Xavi’s new system has allowed De Jong to make the move without leaving Busquets on the bench. Because the Spaniard proved – if there had been any doubt – that there was no way he should not start.

The results were fantastic for De Jong. He has made the most successful passes of any Barcelona player in La Liga this season (1,028). He has made the second-highest number of successful passes in the opposing half of any Barcelona player in La Liga (622, behind Pedri’s 682). He has the second-highest number of touches of any Barcelona player in La Liga (1,347, behind Pedri’s 1,420).

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Those are all figures he’s upped the ante in his impressive performance against Villarreal, one which certainly confirms to Xavi that the solution to his midfield problem is at hand.

(Top Photo: Mateo Villalba/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

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