Frenkie de Jong: Manchester United midfield in need of upgrade to play Erik ten Hag's way

Man Utd are close to agreeing a deal with Barcelona for midfielder Frenkie de Jong; midfielder reached Champions League semis under Erik ten Hag and alongside Donny van de Beek while at Ajax; departing Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic have increased need for central midfield transfer signing

Frenkie de Jong
Image: Frenkie de Jong's success at Ajax took him to Barcelona but could Netherlands international be set for reunion with Ten Hag?

In his first press conference as Manchester United manager, Erik ten Hag outlined his vision.

"The intention is to play fantastic football," he said. "The way we did it [at Ajax] - with dominant, dictating football - that is the way I want to act in Man Utd as well."

But there was also the caveat.

"The competence and quality of the players decide how you have to play."

If Ten Hag is to replicate the patterns, style and approach he fostered to critical acclaim at Ajax with Manchester United, then the feeling is there will need to be significant changes at Old Trafford.

During his tenure in Amsterdam, his Dutch side controlled possession and swarmed over opposition teams when they didn't have the ball.

In contrast United have become the team too-often overwhelmed by opponents. Last season they were frequently passive, unable to win or use the ball effectively enough as they slid to a disappointing sixth place.

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They were also sixth in the standings when it came to possession, passing accuracy and goals from open play, indicative of their lack of authority in games, compared to the league's top sides.

Only four teams conceded more goals from open play in the Premier League last season, during a campaign in which their midfield was criticised
Image: Only four teams conceded more goals from open play in the Premier League last season, during a campaign in which their midfield was criticised

They had the ball for just 28 per cent of the time at Liverpool in April after managing just 30 per cent possession against Man City in March. In fact, seven of Manchester United's 10 lowest possession totals in the Premier League era have come in the past three seasons.

While there are major issues to resolve at both ends of the pitch - seven teams out-scored them, only four conceded more from open play - it's clear a weakness in central midfield contributes to all of these problems.

"We know the areas they absolutely need to actually strengthen," Gary Neville said when asked by the official Man Utd website for his views on their transfer priorities this summer. "Central midfield is an absolute necessity. An absolute necessity. Manchester United need midfield players."

Scott McTominay and Fred have long been criticised as not good enough to run that area of the pitch. "As long as those two are playing in midfield for Man Utd they will not be winning big trophies," Roy Keane told Sky Sports in May 2021. Now, with Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic leaving the club, a solution is desperately needed.

Barcelona's Frenkie de Jong is an attractive option. The stylish midfielder does his best work from deep, stepping past challenges or threading a pass through the lines to move his team up the pitch.

Barcelona's Frenkie de Jong has a track record of using the ball better than Man Utd's Scott McTominay and Fred
Image: De Jong has a track record of using the ball better than Man Utd's Scott McTominay and Fred

He rarely gives the ball away. He had a 91 per cent passing rate in La Liga last season and, as well as that metric, also eclipsed McTominay and Fred in stats measuring dribble success, touch quality and how often they are dispossessed.

De Jong may not be the sole answer to United's problems but he would bring an upgrade to their central midfield department and unlock a way of playing Ten Hag desires.

There is also the tempting possibility of Ten Hag being able to rekindle the Ajax connection between De Jong and returning loanee Donny van de Beek.

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Dutch football journalist Marcel van der Kraan believes new Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag will be having a 'horrible pre-season' as the club are yet to add new faces for him.

Van de Beek has had a frustrating time in English football so far. Four Premier League starts for United and five on loan at Everton is a mystifying return for a player who so impressed, alongside De Jong, during Ajax's run to the semi-finals of the Champions League just three years ago.

Perhaps De Jong's arrival would provide a double boost in central midfield, reigniting his compatriot's Old Trafford career, too.

United could certainly do with a major uplift in that area of the park. Central midfield has been a key problem for seasons - and finding an improvement will be essential to Ten Hag's hopes of delivering the style of football he wants at Old Trafford.

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Keep up-to-date with all the latest transfer news and rumours in our dedicated Transfer Centre blog on Sky Sports' digital platforms. You can also catch up with the ins, outs and analysis on Sky Sports News.

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