Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag insists “unique” Barcelona midfielder Frenkie de Jong would “strengthen any squad in the world” as the pair prepare to meet again in the Europa League on Thursday.
United’s pursuit of De Jong during last summer’s transfer market was well documented with Ten Hag keen to be reunited with the former Ajax star, but a deal between the Premier League side and La Liga giants failed to get over the line.
Barcelona head coach Xavi insisted on Wednesday that De Jong never wanted to leave the club at the time, but that did not stop Ten Hag, who coached the 25-year-old for 18 months during their time in the Netherlands, from praising him once more.
“In 2019, there was a lot of fascination with that Ajax team. Frenkie brought a lot of that fascination and he has developed over the following years in Spain,” Ten Hag said ahead of Thursday’s Europa League knockout round play-off at the Nou Camp.
“He’s a fantastic player and has become even better. Playing out from the back, he always has time.
“It was a pleasure working with him. He would strengthen any squad in the world. He’s got unique quality.”
Ten Hag: Man Utd and Barcelona required a ‘reset’
United and Barcelona are preparing to face off in the Europa League for the first time having been previously used to competing against each other on the biggest stage of European football.
Ten of their 13 meetings in all competitions have been in the Champions League, but Ten Hag believes the tie will help both clubs to improve moving forward.
“Both clubs have the ambition to be in the Champions League and to have an impact in it,” Ten Hag said.
“But the reality is, we’re in the Europa League, which shows both clubs needed a reset. I think it’s exciting to face each other because it will help both clubs. With such tests, you get better.”
United will take on a Barcelona side that is unbeaten in 15 games in all competitions and 11 points clear at the top of La Liga, but Ten Hag’s men will also take confidence into the fixture having lost just once in 15 matches since the season resumed after the World Cup.
“It’s clear when you see the stats of Barcelona, it’s impressive,” Ten Hag said. “They defend well but I think their biggest skill is they have so much possession. When you have the ball, the opponent cannot score.
“At this moment, they are playing their best football for several years. You can see Johan Cruyff’s inspiration here.
“It’s great to play them. I like the philosophy of this club, they bring up so many good players and good teams. We’re looking forward to facing them.”
Man Utd team news – Casemiro back but Martinez suspended
Casemiro is available for Manchester United despite still being banned in domestic competition following his red card against Crystal Palace.
Lisandro Martinez and Marcel Sabitzer are suspended having each picked up three bookings in Europe before the turn of the year.
Antony, Anthony Martial and Scott McTominay have not travelled to Spain following their recent injury absences.
Christian Eriksen and Donny van de Beek are also not available as they continue their rehabilitation from long-term injuries.
Man Utd squad: David de Gea, Tom Heaton, Jack Butland, Victor Lindelof, Harry Maguire, Tyrell Malacia, Raphael Varane, Diogo Dalot, Luke Shaw, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Bruno Fernandes, Fred, Casemiro, Facundo Pellistri, Zidane Iqbal, Kobbie Mainoo, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, Wout Weghorst, Anthony Elanga, Alejandro Garnacho.
What’s coming up for Man Utd?
Sunday 19th February 1:00pm
Kick off 2:00pm
After travelling to Barcelona for the first leg of their Europa League knockout round play-off on Thursday (kick-off 5.45pm), Manchester United then host Leicester in the Premier League on Sunday, live on Sky Sports (kick-off 4.30pm).
Erik ten Hag’s side then welcome Barcelona to Old Trafford in the second leg of that European tie on February 23 (kick-off 8pm) before facing Newcastle in the Carabao Cup final at Wembley on February 26, live on Sky Sports (kick-off 4.30pm).