Frenkie De Jong and generational players

Frenkie De Jong has been called a “generational” player. He isn’t.

Now if the first feeling that arose in your mind is anger at the seeming ideological impurity of the above statement, stop reading now. For anyone left, let’s unpack ideas of generational players.

There is one generational player active in top-flight football right now: Lionel Messi. Recognizing that this will make Ronaldo fans even madder at me than De Jong devotees, it’s still worth asking how do we define a generational player? Is there a context for one? It isn’t simply chronological, nor is it statistical. By that standard, there could be a great many generational players. Nor is a generational player the same as a once-in-a-lifetime talent, which Messi also happens to be, as does Ronaldo. Both of them. Maradona was generational. So was Pele.

For me, a generational player does things that change the game, things that make their existence a before and after. FC Barcelona has been incredibly lucky in that over the past years, the club has had four generational players, in their prime: Ronaldinho, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi. That is a pretty astonishing track record. And each one changed the game, changed what we expect from it.

So, about that Ronaldo business. He scores goals, and bags of them. The question becomes whether goalscoring in extraordinary numbers in and of itself make a player generational? It can make him amazing, and one of the best in the history of the game at that particular task. But has he changed football? Is there a before and after? It’s a complex question that goes beyond club allegiance, and one that anyone could successfully argue both sides of. But any culer that doesn’t give Ronaldo his due as a fantastic player isn’t respecting the game.

Generational players make you wonder how everything even happened before they arrived. They are beyond compare. Xavi changed the way football is played, at international and club level. Ronaldinho ushered in an era of the global superstar with his game-changing talent. Iniesta, like Xavi, made you reconsider the idea of what kind of player could excel at football in the cauldron of the midfield. He changed not only the physical standard and how we apply it, but the idea of what a midfielder can do with a football. And Messi is just … Messi.

We all remember the day Messi came bounding onto the pitch for his debut, long hair streaming behind him, energy almost emanating from his pores. The buzz had already preceded him but even that buzz didn’t capture the reality. He moved differently, did different things. Nobody had ever seen anything like it. There were comparisons to Maradona, but those died away because Messi was something entirely different, even than Ronaldinho.

De Jong is coming to Barcelona over the summer, and a fanbase is excited, as it should be. He’s an exceptionally talented midfielder who is perfectly equipped to play for the idealized version of FC Barcelona that so many supporters have in their minds, a version that rules out all other possibilities and renders their football consumption a joyless slog among the unworthy.

Even at his tender age, he evinces preternatural calm on the ball, understands how to advance it, sees the game in a logical manner that makes him seem raised in that bastion of logical football, La Masia. He fits so completely that it makes you wonder why the club had to debase itself in his pursuit. There is, aside from Ajax, no other place for him to play.

Watching De Jong play is a joy. But is he generational? Does his talent make you wonder how things were before he came? Remember how we felt watching Messi. That is the standard, even if it shouldn’t be. Messi was playing a different game. A player can be talented and fantastic without being generational. It’s a thing that’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it.

One characteristic that De Jong does share with Messi, however, is how quickly the snarl of the defenders arises at anything like an even evaluative word, never mind a discouraging one. He was glorious in his role helping Ajax eliminate Real Madrid from Champions League. And because of how football functions, that is now the template for him.

Generational players don’t require nuance, don’t require you to remind them of the first Real Madrid leg and how well a fitter, less-fatigued Luka Modric played against De Jong, or how poor the battered, old version of Real Madrid that Ajax ran off the pitch was. This doesn’t mean that you don’t rate De Jong, but rather than some perspective needs to be applied not only in this case, but in the hubris that always greets a sensational talent.

As one of my favorite accounts on Twitter, Diana Kristinne says, “Modern football has a desperate need to draw permanent conclusions from temporary situations. Which leads to extremism.” This is true of so many things, including how we react to a particular player being discussed analytically. “You hate him,” “Hater,” are some of the phrases bandied about social media as people are instantly dismissed for not being part of the laudatory crowd. But there is a middle ground.

We can be giddy about the possibility of De Jong playing for Barça, be thrilled about the transfer without making the descent into hyperbole and excess. And that’s okay. We don’t need to hype him by calling him “generational.” Those are some massive shoes to fill. Let Frenkie De Jong be an exceptionally talented midfielder, a wunderkind who will be joining other whiz kids like Carles Alenya and Riqui Puig in the Barcelona midfield. Discuss him, analyze his game, step back a bit from the precipice without fear of being deemed unworthy.

Let Frenkie de Jong be Frenkie de Jong. Not Busquets, not Iniesta, not Xavi, not part of the great legacy of Barcelona midfielders. Just Frenkie de Jong, hyper-talented midfielder with what appears to be the right stuff. The rest will come over time.

By Kxevin

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.