Frenkie de Jong is at Barcelona in his first season but is already working for a second coach, following the January sacking of Ernesto Valverde. The Dutch midfielder arrived from Ajax last July but worked with head coach Valverde for only six months.
Valverde was fired soon after de Jong’s arrival. Barcelona’s dismal performance against Atletico Madrid in the Supercopa de Espana was the final straw for the club’s board, after a string of jarring displays.
There was a sense of guilt at Valverde being the falling guy. “Yes, of course, because when a coach is sacked that’s always about the way the team is playing and they are holding the coach responsible for it,” De Jong told BBC Radio Five Live. “But of course, you’re feeling guilty because the players have to show it on the field.”
However, at the time of Valverde’s dismissal, Barcelona sat top of the LaLiga table, ahead of Real Madrid on goal difference, and they had also won a safe place in the knockout rounds of the Champions League: “We were not doing terrible because we were first in the table when he left.”
The departure of Valverde nonetheless, and the swift arrival of Quique Setien to take the reins, showed De Jong that demands on coaches at Spain’s top clubs are particularly strong. He himself revealed that it was the sacking of Valverde that drilled him home how high the standards are set in Barcelona:
“Especially at Barcelona. It’s a bit of the same as in Ajax: you have to play good and you have to win everything.
“When one of the two is not there, it’s already difficult for the team and the coach, so the pressure is really high here. They are demanding the best football in the world and they want to win every prize, but I like this idea a lot.”
De Jong has come to appreciate such lofty expectations and has come to understand Camp Nou’s ruthless way of life.
Meanwhile, Barcelona is days away from returning to practice, with a trip to face Mallorca next Saturday their first match since the COVID-19 crisis in Spain brought football to a close.
De Jong is relieved that wait is nearly over. “From the moment we could start training again, everyone was desperate to compete again and be with each other again,” he said. “It’s really good at the moment.”
Recently, Barcelona players decided in March to a 70 per cent pay cut to help the club through the time of coronavirus: “I think we already made an agreement for some months with the club, as everybody knows, and I think – I don’t know – the club and some players are negotiating now. I’m not one of them.”
De Jong suspects that further talks are taking place about what will happen next over wages: “I’m not the talker from the group or something, or I’m not one of the captains, so I think they are speaking and we will see how it turns out.”