The demands at Barcelona mean that winning La Liga isn’t always enough to satisfy everyone. Last season, Ernesto Valverde’s side won the Spanish title by 11 points but it was a second successive Champions League humiliation for which their campaign is remembered.
A 4-0 second-leg defeat to Liverpool last season ended the club’s Treble dream and in the end, they didn’t even win the double. Rocked by events at Anfield, they were unable to lift themselves for the Copa del Rey final and suffered a surprise 2-1 reverse against Valencia. It led to calls for Valverde, who had won a double the season before, to be sacked. President Josep Maria Bartomeu stuck with the coach, though, and instead focused on rejuvenating the squad.
Frenkie de Jong — along with Antoine Griezmann, Junior Firpo and Neto — is among the new arrivals. The fresh-faced midfielder joined the club for €75 million on the back of a double-winning season with an Ajax side which also reached the Champions League semifinals.
De Jong, the latest Dutch player to tread the Amsterdam-to-Barcelona path made famous by Johan Cruyff, is already being held up as the leader for a new era at Camp Nou. Fans want the ball to move quicker again, they want the control back and they want to see the players pressing like they did in the Pep Guardiola years.
De Jong is seen as someone who can help do all three.
De Jong sat down with ESPN FC in Ann Arbor, Michigan, during the team’s preseason tour to talk about leaving the Netherlands, expectations for his maiden season at the Camp Nou and what life looks like off the pitch when he has time to check out.
Frenkie de Jong: Yes. There were six or seven of us and we didn’t have the best season the year before. We had some doubts about whether we had to stay or whether we should move to another club for development. They showed us a video about what they expected from the season and what they were expecting from us to convince us to stay, and to show their trust in our talent. It was good that they did that. I think we would have stayed anyway but it helped, for sure. They showed that they had trust in us and that felt good.
ESPN: And you were all compared to a player from Ajax’s past in the video?
FDJ: They were not really comparing but each player had another player from the past who had won trophies at the club and was a bit similar to your position. Mine was [Tottenham’s Christian] Eriksen.
ESPN: Why was that 2017-18 season so disappointing after the excitement of the Europa League final against Manchester United in 2017?
FDJ: I think we always had a lot of talented players at Ajax. That’s the philosophy of the club. We had a really talented squad but it was missing something. I think that year we were a bit unlucky and we all know what happened with [Abdelhak] Nouri in the preseason. All the conditions to be a great team were there but there was something missing.
ESPN: What changed last season?
FDJ : A bit of everything. We had a really talented squad and a lot of quality players. I think the idea of how we wanted to play was really good: the vision, the tactics. When that all comes together and when you have a bit of luck, you can achieve great things. We really had a lot of fun. I think it was a special team, not only for the qualities and the tactics, but it felt like we were friends playing together and it was an amazing season.
ESPN: What were the highlights?
FDJ: I think the wins at [Real] Madrid and Juventus are the best memories. We became champions for what we did over the whole season. It was amazing and the celebrations were amazing, but if I had to name one or two games it was Juve and Madrid away because it was just a big surprise for everyone in Europe. I think the way we played was amazing, really good. It gave people joy.
ESPN: You’ve now joined Barca, Matthijs de Ligt is at Juventus, is there an element of sadness that the team’s being broken up?
FDJ: I’m really proud of the season we had and I am proud to see guys making big movements. I think they all deserve it. But of course I feel a bit sad — not that I regret it, because I am really proud and happy to be here, but it’s a bit sad that the team is breaking up. But you know that those things are going to happen when you have a season like that at a club like Ajax. It’s just the way it is.
ESPN: Do you think that will always be the way at Ajax now?
FDJ: I think it depends a lot on the competition. The competition needs to grow a lot. The Eredivisie is, for me, a great competition to play in and it was a great time, but the Eredivisie nowadays cannot compare to La Liga, Premier League and all those competitions.
ESPN: Donny van de Beek could be the next to leave, with Real Madrid interested. Would you like to have him as a rival?
FDJ: I would prefer him to stay at Ajax because I wouldn’t have him as an opponent and Ajax would stay strong. But, no, of course, when it’s all settled, and if he moves to Madrid, I am really happy for him. I think he deserves it. He’s a great player. Then I will go see him in Spain! I am pretty sure he has the ability. I think he showed it last season in the Champions League, especially in the knockout rounds. I think he has shown to the world and everyone in Europe he has the ability to play at that level.
ESPN: How important was coach Erik ten Hag?
FDJ: All of the technical staff were really important. You can have quality players, but you need good tactics as well. I think it’s one of the most important things today in football and for me, we had amazing tactics. Every game I had the feeling: ‘OK we’re going to beat them because we’re going to do this, this and this and we have the quality players.’ So I think a big part of the success was also the technical staff. It’s not as simple as [saying]: ‘Go out and enjoy yourself!’ I think these days, in football, it’s really, really important that you have good tactics, that you know how an opponent is going to press, what you’re going to do against it and I think we were prepared on all those things, so the technical staff did an amazing job last year.
ESPN: The rumours about your future and De Ligt’s were relentless at times. Was that hard to deal with?
FDJ: No, for me it was not that hard. People are going to talk about it but it did not affect me or my family so much. It felt really good to close the deal in January, though, because then all of the rumours were behind us and I could just focus on Ajax. Before that, I could focus on Ajax as well, but it was just a nice feeling to know what was coming next year.
ESPN: How are you settling in at Barca?
FDJ: I am really enjoying it so far. The team is helping me a lot with everything, on the field and off the field. I feel really good, I feel comfortable. They made me feel at home. The first month has been really good.
ESPN: You’ve been critical of some of your own performances in preseason and have also said there’s a lot that the team can do better. Valverde says you have such high standards for yourself as well.
FDJ: I have a high standard for myself and for the team as well, but I am not the boss of the team so I don’t need to say anything about [how we should play]. I just demand a lot from myself and I think that you always need to look at the things you can improve because otherwise you’re not getting better as a player. I am still young so I need to improve a lot.
ESPN: How similar are Barcelona’s and Ajax’s playing styles?
FDJ: I think the philosophy and the idea of the clubs are the same: they want to be dominant and have possession a lot and enjoy the fans and everything. I think there are not big differences, but some differences in the way of playing. I think it’s normal. Every club plays in a different way, but you can compare them for sure because the idea and the vision of the club is the same. The way of playing is a bit different actually, but I am playing with so many quality players that it’s more easy for me to fit in the team.
ESPN: What are the differences?
FDJ: It’s difficult to explain because I’m not going to give away all the things we are doing in the team. It’s about the tactics and stuff. There are some slight differences.
ESPN: When are you happiest on the pitch?
FDJ: The part I am enjoying the most is when we have possession. But I think all of parts of the game are really important. In football nowadays, you can’t say we’re only playing with the ball and when [the opposition] have the ball we’re not doing anything. I think all the parts are really important but if you ask me which I’m enjoying the most. then it’s [being] on the ball. I like it when I have the ball a lot, move it around, play possession with the team and everything, attack and combination.
ESPN: What areas of your game are you looking to improve?
FDJ: I think I can improve my long-range passing a lot. 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.
ESPN: Is it true you’ve had to be reined in a bit in preseason?
FDJ: I try to do a lot of things for myself, in the gym and everything, but in preseason you always need to be a bit careful because you have to gain fitness. The trainers say that it’s a bit dangerous to do some extra stuff so I just need to be patient and wait for the season to start and then I can. They’re saying otherwise you can get injured.
ESPN: Do the demands you place on yourself in football translate to your home life?
FDJ: Not at all! I’m just a person who can relax at home. If we’re eating food, it doesn’t need to be the best or anything. It’s just normal at home! I just like spending time with the people I love, like my girlfriend, my family and friends.
ESPN: Are you a player who likes to watch football at home or do you try and disconnect?
FDJ: I am watching a lot of football, the big European leagues, Dutch football as well. I like it. Football is a big part of my life and I plan to keep on watching it.
ESPN: Away from Barcelona, is it an exciting time to be part of the Dutch team following some difficult years?
FDJ: It’s really good. I think we have a lot of talented players, some world-class players as well. The future is looking bright. I think we are have a good vibe now — it’s been a bit negative over the last few years — but now it’s all looking positive and now we have to make sure we can qualify for the Euros [next summer] and then we will see how far we can go in that tournament.
ESPN: How’s Ronald Koeman as a coach? How big was his role in choosing to sign for Barcelona?
FDJ: I asked him for advice on my choice for a new club. He was really enthusiastic about Barcelona, I don’t need to say that! Of course, as a coach he’s really good, he gives the team confidence, tactically he is strong, I think we’re all really happy with him.