The world of professional football is littered with odd transfer deals. When Renato Sanches left Agues da Musgueira for Benfica the club agreed a deal totalling €750 and 25 balls, the latter only payable once Sanches signed a professional contract with the club.
Congolese winger Cedrick Mabwati paid then-club Numancia €1.20 to be released from his contract so he could join Real Betis. And then there is Frenkie de Jong. A man dominating the headlines, writing a fine legacy with each passing game, that cost Ajax €1.
It’s a story that, if put into google, produces almost one million results. What at first seems like a chronic moment of naivety from Willem II was actually a master-stroke, as it allowed the club to inset a 10% sell-on clause for the midfielder, one which will net them roughly €7.5million from the deal that sees De Jong move to Barcelona.
Those who do business with Willem in the future would be wise not to under-estimate them, and the same is true of De Jong. The midfielder may have narrowly missed out on a Champions League final place with Ajax this season, but he appears to have moved on from that disappointment by producing another strong performance in the Nations League this weekend.
England saw first hand just why De Jong is so highly rated. His style of play is a joy to watch. He is a player that has been taught skills and encouraged to rely on his own intelligence to solve problems. We often describe players as being ‘comfortable on the ball’, but in De Jong there is a someone that never seems rushed.
“The reason I said [Paul] Scholes was the best player I ever played with was because he controlled every game he played in,” Gary Neville told Sky Sports following the 2-1 loss for England. “Until we have players that can receive the ball on the half turn. If you don't control a game in a European semi-final, you're really struggling, you're done.”
Looking back, Neville’s assessment is hard to disagree with. De Jong had spent most of the evening with the ball at his feet (he had 128 touches in total according to Opta). His skills are clear to see. His versatility; being able to dribble, pass, and control the game is what sets him apart.
At one stage Virgil van Dijk, under pressure himself, fired the ball into De Jong’s feet just outside the Dutch penalty area. Briefly stumbling, and shadowed by an eager Jordan Henderson, he corrected his feet before chipping a ball out wide to a teammate.
John Stones was presented with a less taxing situation later on in the game only to turn, fumble, and stumble. Before he had chance to rectify the situation it was 2-1 to the Netherlands.
That moment felt like a microcosm for the difference between the two sides. As a team England played ok, but where De Jong could disguise a pass and slip it through the lines with a pass or a dribble none of England’s midfield seemed able.
Of course, his performance did not go unnoticed and it meant Portugal had a plan to combat his influence by the time the final arrived on Sunday.
"De Jong plays normally on the left closer to Bruno Fernandes. [Marten] de Roon played closer to [William] Carvalho," said head coach Fernando Santos. “We were aware of the qualities of these midfielders of the Dutch team and De Jong; a great creator with great potential. We knew that if we curtailed his freedom we would stand to gain. My players' instructions were to play the ball whenever they had it and to balance our defence by keeping an eye out to curtail the freedom De Jong and [Virgil] van Dijk would have.”
The Portuguese eventually won the game thanks to a goal from Gonçalo Guedes.
“I could have done a lot more today,” De Jong told NOS . “I didn't create enough spaces between their defence and midfield.”
Such intelligence and awareness is another facet of what marks De Jong out as special. His move to Barcelona set the club back €75 million, but that is already beginning to look like a shrewd piece of business. As for England, this was not the first time they had been undone by an intelligent conductor in the heart of midfield.
Last summer, Luka Modric was the instigator of England’s heart-break, this time it was De Jong. The hope now is that one day England will have a player of their own to lead the orchestra and bring a touch of class to the heart of midfield, and it would be even better if he only cost a £1.