Frenkie De Jong: The Ajax sensation who could be better than Beckenbauer
"I want to be Frenkie De Jong," Dutch columnist Frank Heinen recently headlined an article about the Ajax prospect.
Those feelings are shared by many fans throughout the Netherlands. Football purists are falling in love, head over heels, and it is easy to understand why. With the Netherlands' national team in such disarray, it's easy to see why many see such hope in this under-21 international.
If you don't follow the Eredivisie, you probably haven't heard of De Jong yet, but scouts from all the top clubs are watching his progress very closely. Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea were recently mentioned as potential suitors. His exquisite talents are reminiscent of Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets, which makes you think a move to Barcelona would be most fitting.
That said, most Dutch fans hadn't heard of the outstanding talent until this season, when he finally became a first-team regular with Ajax at the age of 20.
De Jong comes from a family of die-hard Feyenoord supporters and was born near Rotterdam. Nevertheless, he turned down the chance to join Feyenoord's academy at the age of seven, preferring to sign for Willem II instead. He only played one Eredivisie game for Willem II as a substitute, before being signed by Ajax in the summer of 2015. He was loaned back to his first club for six months and joined up fully with the Amsterdam club in January 2016.
Willem II's under-15 coach, Jos Bogers, still talks extremely highly of him to this day.
"I had an interview for the Willem II website, and was asked about my favourite player. Obviously, most coaches name Cristiano Ronaldo or Leo Messi, but I said Frenkie De Jong," Bogers said. "He was fantastic technically. That is a natural talent. Some guys need to work a lot in order to reach a certain level, but Frenkie didn't have to train to show his quality."
Initially he played mainly for Jong Ajax, the reserve team that plays in the second division, and was named Talent of the Year for the league last season. It is unusual that a player of such potential has to wait until the age of 20 to get his chance in the Eredivisie, but his style might have been considered too adventurous. Now, however, there is no looking back and he might soon outgrow the Eredivisie.
Watching De Jong in action is exciting. He is blessed with stunning dribbling and passing skills, as well as rare vision. You should always expect the unexpected when the ball is at his feet.
De Jong can slide past opponents as though they don't exist and then deliver a pinpoint pass, whatever the range, sending a teammate into open space. He plays effortlessly, making the hardest things look ridiculously easy. He is booming with self-confidence, ready to take risks, yet keeps his pass completion ratio very high.
Just read what Ryan Thomas, the New Zealander who is having a superb season himself at Dutch club PEC Zwolle, said about De Jong.
"I recently watched an Ajax game and spent 90 minutes following Frenkie De Jong. You might ask me about other players, but I can't tell you a thing about them. I was only watching Frenkie -- the way he runs, the way he turns, the way he finds space. He is the youngest on the pitch, but everyone gives him the ball. That is the greatest compliment for a footballer. He is incredibly good, and should play for Barcelona or Real Madrid one day," Thomas said.
There is also a nostalgic feeling. No Dutch player in recent memory comes close to De Jong, and fans have to go way back to find another suitable role model.
"Frenkie's style reminds people of Frank Rijkaard," Dutch journalist Floris Koekenbier told ESPN FC.
In fact, even more flattering comparisons are quite widespread. Arie Haan, the great Ajax and Netherlands star of the 70s, claimed that "De Jong is a better version of Franz Beckenbauer, because he has speed and passes the ball easily."
Those are not empty words, because Haan played against Germany legend Beckenbauer himself, including in the 1974 World Cup final, and had never spoken of anyone like that before.
The parallels are especially curious, as Beckenbauer started his career in midfield before switching to a libero with revolutionary effect. Coincidentally, Haan was also a midfielder frequently used in central defence. De Jong is following their footsteps.
Originally a versatile midfielder, able to play as a holder, a box-to-box runner and a playmaker, he was surprisingly tried in central defence by coach Marcel Keizer in December, amusingly just after he provided three masterful assists in the 5-1 demolition of Roda.
A few weeks later, Keizer was controversially fired, but his replacement, Erik Ten Hag, continues to play De Jong as a centre-back, giving him a free hand to roam forward whenever he likes. That is exactly what the youngster likes to do, reinventing the libero role that had long been forgotten. During the 2-0 win over Feyenoord last month, De Jong delivered a man of the match performance, starting countless attacks, making mazy dribbles and completing 100 out of 103 passes.
Heinen wrote: "Look at Frenkie De Jong and see a football instruction video. Frankie is the smiling TV chef, and other players are the clumsy viewers who attempt to use the recipe. You could blame him for looking for a difficult decision, but the word difficult has other meaning for Frenkie."
Critics remain, though, especially when he plays in defence.
"He needs to get back in to midfield as soon as possible. At the moment, he poses a threat to his own team, as much as to the opposition," ELF Foetbal journalist Geert Beckers told ESPN FC.
De Jong actually agrees wholeheartedly.
"I see this as a short-term experiment, and I don't want to remain in central defence throughout my career. I have always been a midfielder, and I remain a midfielder," he said.
That is where De Jong's future lies, and if he is able to fulfil his potential, he could become the best of his generation. That could be the perfect scenario, but could also be a tragedy if such a talent is eventually wasted. With so few Eredivisie matches under his belt, it is too early to make predictions, but you definitely must remember the name.
Michael Yokhin is an experienced international football journalist who writes for ESPN, Blizzard, Guardian and FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @yokhin.