Some four years ago, De Jong was answering a question that many of us didn't realize we needed answered: Could Bayern Munich and Germany legend Franz Beckenbauer compete with the best if he was playing in 2018? Der Kaiser won the Ballon d'Or twice as a defender (1972, 1976), but he didn't really win it for his defending. He started off as an attacking midfielder for Germany before eventually being pushed as far back as possible, sitting as a "libero" behind the back line. But that's just where he started; once he got the ball, Beckenbauer would drive it forward all on his own and play the decisive pass.
In 1974, Beckenbauer captained his country to a World Cup final victory over Netherlands. The game was easily classified as a clash of styles: the programmatic Germany vs. the free-flowing Total Football of Johan Cruyff's Dutch side. But Beckenbauer's do-everything approach reflected the style of his opponents right back at them. And in 2018, one of those opponents, Netherlands midfielder Arie Haan, said the following: "[Frenkie] de Jong is a better version of Franz Beckenbauer, because he has speed and passes the ball easily."
In the Eredivisie, Ajax were employing this lithe blond kid as a center-back, and he was dribbling up, down and across the field for fun. It was video-game soccer, but less FIFA and more Super Mario Brothers. Any space he saw seemed to be an invitation to drive it forward. He'd turned the standard risk/reward of the soccer field on its head. De Jong's fearlessness opened up all kinds of new possibilities for the way the game could be played; if you could play like that as a center-back, then, well, what couldn't you do?
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While De Jong didn't play at the back during Ajax's famous run to within seconds of the Champions League final, he still stretched the field and the bounds of positional possibility from a deep midfield role. In the summer of 2019, he moved to Barcelona for €75 million ($94.6m). Three years later, he's been the one thing it didn't seem like he could ever be: unspectacular.
So, what happened? And what could still happen now that he is being linked with a move away from Barcelona to rejoin former Ajax coach Erik ten Hag at Manchester United?