Netherlands striker Memphis Depay. Image Credit: Reuters

Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal is reserving an automatic place for only two players in his World Cup squad in a strict selection regime where match fitness is a major criteria.

One is forward Memphis Depay and the other his Barcelona team mate Frenkie de Jong, whose minutes in action for the Catalan giants have fallen sharply this season but for whom Van Gaal says he will bend his own usually iron-clad rule.

It is a measure of the key role midfielder De Jong plays in the Dutch side, generating attacks, shifting the ball around the field and dictating the tempo of play.

I realise how important Frenkie is. He brings extra quality” Van Gaal said earlier this year, one of several times he has singled out the 25-year-old midfield dynamo for individual praise.

De Jong was 21 when he made his first Netherlands appearance in 2018. If you make a debut like that, you have a very bright future” enthused then national team coach Ronald Koeman after De Jong came on in a friendly against Peru in Amsterdam.

In the following 48 internationals he has played in 45 and been in the starting lineup 43 times, seen as one of the driving forces of the Dutch revival after the calamity of missing out on the 2016 European Championship and 2018 World Cup.

Out of favour

Ironically, before the last Euros there was concern De Jong would be fatigued after too much club football. Now there are fears he might be undercooked as he has fallen out of favour at Barca.

They attempted to sell De Jong in the off-season to ease their financial crisis but the player stood his ground over the issue of deferred wages owed to him in what has proved a protracted saga.

“I always wanted to stay at Barcelona and this is why I remained calm in the summer,” he told reporters in September.

“The club has its own ideas and I have my own ideas too. And sometimes these clash with each other.” The best-case scenario for Van Gaal and the Dutch would be a De Jong in top form. But they know that even if the midfielder is not at his peak, he is a player with the ability to strongly influence their quest for World Cup glory.