“It’s crazy when people like you come all the way from England,” Frenkie de Jong says with a sincerity that suggests he really is struggling to understand why anyone would board a plane just to interview him.
De Jong offers a bashful smile and for a moment it almost feels as if he has a point as we sit in the noisy canteen at Ajax’s training ground. Maybe it is time to stop the tape and give this pleasant young man some space.
There is a good reason for making the journey, though, not to mention something disarming about meeting a rising talent who seems tickled by the hype surrounding him. On a light Amsterdam afternoon, De Jong’s modesty shines through. He is reassuringly normal for a 21-year-old who has been called – deep breath now – the new Johan Cruyff, the new Franz Beckenbauer and the future of Dutch football. Barcelona are linked with him on a daily basis but Manchester City also want a new midfield technician.
Some say De Jong is a No 6, some a No 8. Others view him as a No 10, because he treats the ball like his oldest friend, and he has also been likened to Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard after impressing as a sweeper. But it is the comparisons with Cruyff that make him most uncomfortable.
“I feel honoured,” De Jong says. “But I don’t think you can compare the two of us. He is so much better than me. He had so much quality. I will never reach that level. I don’t want to compare myself to Cruyff. And I think people who do that don’t want me to compare to Cruyff, they just see similarities in us. But not the same qualities. I watch his videos and he was amazing; the way he moved with the ball, the way he saw the game.”
De Jong’s caution is understandable. Plenty of self-proclaimed future Ballon d’Or winners have made life difficult for themselves by talking too much and he is determined not to fall into that trap. It is a long climb to the top.
They already adore him in Amsterdam, though. Even people without any interest in football have heard of De Jong, who is revered for his passing, skill and footballing intellect. He is incredibly brave on the ball, which tends to go down well in the Netherlands. This proud football nation has fallen on hard times, failing to qualify for the last two major tournaments, but De Jong’s emergence is one of the reasons why they have fresh hope. Having finished above Germany and France in their Nations League group, Ronald Koeman’s young side will be England’s semi-final opponents at next summer’s finals.
De Jong oozed composure when he made his full international debut in the 2-1 away defeat to France three months ago. Typically he corrects a story about Kylian Mbappé asking for his shirt after the game, insisting he initiated the swap with the France forward.
Ajax, who have reached the last 16 of the Champions League for the first time in 13 years, have embraced his talent. Erik ten Hag’s side are in the midst of a romantic resurgence – Ajax will win their group if they beat Bayern Munich on Wednesday – and De Jong gets why people see Cruyff’s spirit in him.
“Normally midfielders only pass the ball but I dribble as well,” he says. “People say I take a lot of risks but I don’t think I do, because I don’t lose possession that much.”
Last season De Jong had the best passing accuracy (91.5%) and dribble success rate (90.3%) in the Eredivisie, explaining his appeal to Pep Guardiola. It did not bother De Jong that some coaches thought he hung on to the ball too much while he was rising through Willem II’s academy. Part of his makeup is his willingness to trust his instincts, his refusal to conform.
“Yeah,” he says. “Since I was young I played like this. I don’t think it’s good to become less of what I am now. I have come to the first team playing the way I did when I was a kid. Why change now? Some people say you have to play mature football but the way Lionel Messi plays is mature football as well. He’s just too good for everyone. He can just dribble past them and it looks like his opponents are the kids.
“When I am on the pitch I play on intuition but I think a lot about the game as well. With my intuition, it is not just that I receive the ball and always think ‘I’m going to do this’ straight away, even though it just happens that way sometimes.
“Most good players play on intuition. Everyone has a little but I don’t know if you can learn it. Sometimes I’m planning. I’m always searching for the pass. I’m always looking to see my teammate. ‘Is he free?’ Then you already know what to do. But sometimes the situation can change. Then you have to react and use your intuition. I try to have a picture when I receive the ball and know where everyone is. That’s one of the most important things for a midfielder.”
De Jong’s passion is obvious. He was always playing when he was growing up in Arkel, a village in South Holland, and was never glued to his phone. He joined Ajax in 2015.
“I like to watch the great players, the ones who are technically good and understand the game,” De Jong says. “I try to see how they move. There are so many I look at, especially the midfielders. You have the guys from Barcelona, the guys from Manchester City. Jorginho at Chelsea now. There are so many to learn from.”
Has he seen the criticism Jorginho has received in England for failing to protect Chelsea’s defence this season? “You have to tackle as well,” De Jong says. “You have to do your defensive work but I like to see players who understand the game, players with a lot of vision. Jorginho is one of them.”
He cannot hide his admiration for Guardiola’s great Barça side and says Messi is the best because he can do everything. “I love this style. Get the ball back quickly, then play possession with so many combinations. When you watch that, you get the feeling you want to go out on the pitch and play football with your friends and just enjoy yourself. City and Barcelona are great examples.”
De Jong has come into his own in the last two years. He was a late substitute when Manchester United beat Ajax 2-0 in the Europa League final in 2017, José Mourinho’s counterattacking tactics cutting through Ajax’s high press. The coach, Peter Bosz, left for Borussia Dortmund shortly after taking them to that first European final in 21 years and after a brief spell with Marcel Keizer in charge, Ten Hag took over in December 2017.
Ten Hag knows Guardiola after spending two years as Bayern Munich’s second-team manager. De Jong has enjoyed learning from the 48-year-old and praises his “positive energy” and “great football vision”.
The mood is optimistic but beneath the surface uncertainty lingers. Ajax are producing players, with youngsters such as the goalkeeper André Onana, Donny van de Beek, David Neres and Kasper Dolberg catching the eye, but they have not won the league since 2014 and are two points behind PSV Eindhoven at the top of the Eredivisie. They have lost Justin Kluivert, Davinson Sánchez and Davy Klaassen in the last two years and there is relentless speculation over Matthijs de Ligt, the elegant 19-year-old centre-back, and De Jong.
“It’s difficult to say what will happen,” De Jong says. “I want to finish this season well with Ajax. Then we will see. Maybe I’ll stay for another year, maybe I’ll leave. But I am not sure.”
One day it’s Barcelona, the next it’s City. De Jong laughs. “I don’t pay attention to it,” he says. “I hear the stories but I just want to finish this season well.”
We talk about Ajax winning three consecutive European Cups in the 1970s and a fourth in 1995. De Jong accepts it will be hard for the current side to recreate those glory days but he is relaxed about the interest in his every move.
“I’m just me,” he says. “I try to be kind to everyone. I feel pressure to win but when I am on the pitch I don’t think: ‘Oh, I’m not playing well, the media is going to hammer me.’”
We head outside and our photographer tells De Jong he has a lovely smile. His face reddens a little and I tell him he smiles a lot. “I want to enjoy life,” he says. “Be happy.”