Why Barcelona vs. Man United is the Frenkie de Jong game

play
How 'intimidating' Ten Hag is bringing back Man United's fear factor (1:35)

Mark Ogden and Luis Miguel Echegaray explain how Erik Ten Hag's managerial presence is finally helping Manchester United back to the top. (1:35)

It's a question that's been asked so often since the summer transfer window, but at least this time Frenkie de Jong's girlfriend, Mikky Kiemeney, had an answer.

After a summer of speculation about De Jong possibly moving to Manchester United, she was asked during an Instagram Q&A, "When's Frenkie coming to Manchester?" Her tongue-in-cheek answer -- "23-2, I guess" -- was a reference to Barcelona's Europa League tie with United, which kicks off at Camp Nou on Thursday before the return leg at Old Trafford on Feb. 23.

Despite the best efforts of United and manager Erik ten Hag last summer, De Jong will be playing for Barcelona, although they haven't given up hope of seeing the Dutch midfielder wearing red in the future. But what happened last summer with that transfer saga, and what has happened since? How big of a factor will he be in this Europa League clash, and will Man United try again to sign the 25-year-old this summer?

De Jong's fit at Barcelona

De Jong's time at Barca has been laced with debate. For a start: what is his best role? When the Dutch international arrived in 2019, many incorrectly expected him to be the heir to veteran holding midfielder Sergio Busquets. Some of De Jong's best qualities are not suited to being at the base of a midfield three, though, and several of his coaches have made that point at Ajax and at Barca.

While still in charge of Ajax, Ten Hag said De Jong "leaves the middle of the pitch too often [to be the sole defensive midfielder]." He said if you don't give him the freedom to get forward, you don't get the best out of him. Ronald Koeman, who managed Barcelona in 2020-21, agreed, and some of De Jong's standout Barca performances, like the 2021 Copa del Rey final, came when he was encouraged to gamble and get into the box. He scored in that final, and it looked as if his Camp Nou career was finally taking off.

De Jong was a favourite under Koeman and while the dismissal of his Dutch compatriot -- who was fired in October 2021 after a dismal start to the season -- could have been viewed as a negative, the appointment of Xavi Hernandez allowed a positive spin, too. Xavi was one of Barca's best-ever midfielders and was viewed as a coach who could take De Jong's game to the next level. However, there were teething problems -- not just for De Jong but for other players as well.

Xavi never named names, but he did say there were players who didn't understand what he was teaching. "[The players] were not working on positional play, and we defend differently to the way they did under the previous coach," he said in December 2021. "We don't understand the way we want to play football. It's strange that there are Barca players that don't understand positional play."

De Jong was regularly taken off early in games, which led to the conclusion last summer that, for that right transfer fee, he could be considered surplus at Camp Nou.

For his part, Xavi voiced support for the player but never ruled out an exit. "There is the sporting situation and the financial situation," was his go-to line when asked about De Jong.

Meanwhile, Barca president Joan Laporta courted interest from United and, even though Laporta will deny it now, sources at the time confirmed to ESPN that Barca would have been prepared to transfer De Jong out to Old Trafford for a fee around €85 million. As well as the cash boost from such a fee, Barca would also have been free of De Jong's wage, which is one of the highest in the squad and increases each year because of a deferral agreement signed when he renewed to help the club cut spending in the short term.

De Jong had other ideas. Sources close to the player never strayed from the line that he wanted to stay in Barcelona. He stayed in the end, but not without collateral damage. He has since spoken about his annoyance at how the club's hierarchy dealt with the issue -- "I blame these people [the Barca hierarchy], but I have nothing to do with them" -- but his recent performances in a new midfield four are helping everyone move on from any ill feelings lingering from last summer. -- Marsden

The Man United side: Why they wanted De Jong

When Ten Hag got the manager's job at Old Trafford in the spring of 2022, he made it clear his priority was to sign a central midfielder. De Jong, who had worked with Ten Hag at Ajax for a couple of seasons before moving to Barcelona in 2019, was identified very quickly as one of his top targets, particularly because United were made aware that Barcelona would be open to a deal in an effort to ease their financial worries.

The two clubs made a lot of progress during talks to thrash out a deal, and at one stage, after United football director John Murtough had flown to Spain, had a broad agreement. However, money owed to De Jong by the Spanish side after he agreed to defer wages during the height of the coronavirus pandemic caused a significant problem. Sources close to United insist they would not have pursued De Jong as strongly if they'd not had encouragement that he was willing to move, although most of the player's public comments on the potential transfer suggest otherwise.

When it became clear that De Jong wasn't happening last summer, United turned to Casemiro as their central midfielder, with the Brazil and Real Madrid star arriving in late August for a reported fee of £60m plus add-ons. It has worked out well, with the Brazilian already one of this season's standout players. But despite Casemiro's arrival, United have never fully ruled out reigniting their interest in De Jong, and the club have been led to believe he will be made available again in the summer.

Ten Hag's priorities in the transfer market have shifted, and it's likely signing a striker will be his priority ahead of next season, but he has made no secret of his desire to sign De Jong. Equally, United would certainly explore it again if it became clear he is leaving Camp Nou. -- Dawson

Will De Jong be a critical player in these Europa League clashes?

This week, De Jong faces the club he could have joined last summer as one of Barca's most in-form players. Xavi has recently switched from a 4-3-3 formation to more of a 4-4-2, with midfielder Gavi acting as a false left winger to create superiority in the middle of the pitch.

The change has brought the best out of De Jong. With Busquets beside him -- although the Barca captain is a major doubt for the United tie with an ankle sprain -- he has the liberty to attack without the fear of leaving space behind him. In Gavi and Pedri, he has two of the best young midfielders in the world to link with, and as a result he has played a major part in Barca's 16-game unbeaten run in all competitions.

Perhaps the best sight of De Jong is him galloping forward with the ball when space opens ahead of him, his opponents unable to keep up, but there are technical details as well. His subtle chipped pass for Robert Lewandowski against Villarreal at the weekend deserved a goal. He's ferocious in Barca's high press and has the energy to get back to defend counter-attacks, too.

In many ways, De Jong is a modern version of a box-to-box midfielder in Barcelona's setup. There is not much he cannot do, although in an interview with ESPN he spoke about a desire to keep improving.

"I think I can improve my long-range passing a lot," he said. "I can score more goals. I don't think it's the most important thing as a midfielder, especially with my style of playing, but I can score more goals. I can improve my long-range shooting, going behind the defence, runs behind the defence."

De Jong's performances should not come as a surprise, either. He was stellar in Ajax's Champions League semifinal run in 2019 and is always the best player for the Netherlands, but after over three years at Camp Nou, questions were being asked. After sticking to his guns and staying last summer, he was a substitute in three of the first four league games this season. It is now unthinkable that he would be left on the bench, unless he's being rested.

Heading into Thursday, De Jong has played 90 minutes in each of Barca's past five games, and United -- Ten Hag especially -- won't need any reminders of the threat he carries. -- Marsden

Will Man United try again this coming summer?

United's priority heading into the summer transfer window is to sign a high-level striker, but Ten Hag's stance on De Jong is that the door "isn't closed."

From United's point of view, much will depend on Barcelona's financial situation and whether De Jong wants to move to Old Trafford, but Ten Hag still believes that the 25-year-old is one of the best midfielders in the world -- particularly because of his passing ability -- and that he would complement what Ten Hag already has in the squad.

It's also possible that both Fred and Scott McTominay could leave, although that's far from certain. Ten Hag is also a keen admirer of Jude Bellingham, but there's a feeling that Manchester City, Liverpool and Real Madrid are ahead in the race for his signature if, as expected, he leaves Borussia Dortmund at the end of the season.

With the ownership of the club up in the air and financial fair play becoming more of a concern, the budget available to Ten Hag and the recruitment team is not set in stone. The bulk of it will go on a striker -- Victor Osimhen at Napoli, Tottenham's Harry Kane and Brentford's Ivan Toney are among the targets being monitored -- but if there's a chance of landing De Jong as well, Ten Hag will not want to pass it up.

Pep Guardiola is another fan of De Jong's, and Manchester City have looked at a transfer in the past, but even though they could be in the market for a midfielder in the summer, they are unlikely to reignite their interest. -- Dawson

Barcelona's perspective: De Jong is as essential as he has ever been

Several factors have combined to change Barcelona's point of view on De Jong. The first is their switch to a midfield four, which makes him perhaps as essential as he has ever been since he joined the club. The second is his form within that system, which has been exceptional, and the third is the uncertainty around Busquets' future.

Although the two players are viewed as very different stylistically, the club do not want to lose two of their starting midfielders in the same summer. Busquets is out of contract in June, and with interest from Major League Soccer and Saudi Arabia, it's not yet clear whether he will extend his deal and remain at the Camp Nou.

Despite their continued struggles to adhere to LaLiga's fair play rules, Barca also insist there's no need to listen to offers for players they don't want to release. Laporta, whether bluffing or not, confirmed that at a news conference last week, and De Jong is very much in that category now. Sources suggest bids could be encouraged for "squad players," but not for "regulars" like the Dutch international.

De Jong, meanwhile, has stressed his desire to remain at the club for the next decade, and the team's upward trajectory is unlikely to change his mind imminently. (His goalkeeper, Marc-Andre ter Stegen, was also emphatic about his feelings towards De Jong, telling the media Tuesday, "I was hoping he would stay because, in the end, this is the type of player I want in my team. Of course, there were many rumours and discussions and whatever, but I am just happy he is here. I don't want him to leave.)

With the Spanish Supercopa already won, an 11-point lead in LaLiga, a Copa del Rey semifinal and the Europa League all to come, this could be De Jong's most successful season yet in Catalonia. -- Marsden