Former Ajax attacking midfielder Donny van de Beek has had a difficult start to his career with Manchester United. Yet despite the current media narrative, there are plenty of reasons for optimism…
The saying ‘too good to be true’ can be pertinent to football transfers. A move may look ideal on paper but ultimately not deliver as expected. There will be early concerns amongst Manchester United and Netherlands fans that this may be the case with Dutch international Donny van de Beek, following his transfer to Manchester United from Ajax.
On the face of it, the September jump from Amsterdam to Manchester for the 23-year-old is a match made in the Theatre of Dreams. An intelligent, versatile and energetic attacking midfielder capable of picking a pass, finding the back of the net and putting a foot in, moulded in the ‘total football’ traditions of Ajax, all in theory make van de Beek the ideal solution for a team needing more midfield creativity and goals.
The £40 million transfer fee would have been astronomical not so long ago but now, for a player with serious potential growth on the pitch and market value off it, the deal looked a fine piece of business. Especially considering the level of interest in the player, including from Real Madrid. In four seasons as a regular starter with his hometown club, van de Beek established himself as one of Europe’s most promising young players, regularly scoring and making goals and acting as a key cog in the Ajax Eredivisie machine. His star truly rose to prominence when Ajax almost reached the Champions League Final in 2019 and he is now an important player for Frank de Boer at international level.
The short-term reality
We can all jump the gun in our judgements on football; leaping to staunch opinions on a ship’s destination when it has barely left port. Indeed, some of the claims about van de Beek needing to be sold and being a failed transfer are ludicrous. He’s not even halfway into his first season. We’d only had two league games when his ‘advisor’ Sjaak Swart started criticising how the player was being used.
Nevertheless, the short-term statistics do not currently paint a pretty picture for a £40 million midfielder. Making 20 appearances in 27 matches across all competitions (at time of writing) isn’t bad but he has only started two Premier League games and been an unused substitute on six occasions. This includes matches against Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea and three consecutive games over the busy Christmas period, when managers generally look to rotate. He’s come off the bench with only 15 minutes or less left eight times, most recently in the dying embers of a League Cup semi-final defeat when his team had been chasing the game for most of the second half. Almost half his starts have come in that lesser priority competition and he’s completed a full match on a mere three occasions. A solitary goal is next to his name, from the opening fixture of the season. The various shots of him sat glum on the bench have defined his stay so far.
Based on this and the context to the transfer, you can understand the frustration at his lack of opportunities. It’s also causing concern amongst Netherlands fans ahead of the European Championship, with Dutch legend Ronald de Boer stating he will need a move away in January if he wants to keep his international place. The passionate demands for his inclusion were invigorated by his new team’s early-season struggles that were characterised by an unbalanced, slow midfield. Not to mention how bright and effective he has generally looked in his brief outings. Debates have grown over whether he is simply a square peg in a round hole who will never fit in Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s team, or whether the Norwegian ever wanted him at all.
However, critics need to take a deep breath and realise there’s still plenty to be optimistic about in 2021 and beyond for van de Beek. Things are not as bleak as they may seem…
- Patience is a virtue
As much as fans want to see new signings instantly hit the ground running, more often than not it doesn’t happen, particularly for younger players. In a new league with a new Manager, teammates, tactics and pace of game, like many before him van de Beek will need more than half a season to acclimatise to his new surroundings. We only need look at the experiences of two of van de Beek’s fellow Ajax academy graduates Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt – both took time to adjust in their first seasons at Barcelona and Juventus respectively, and both are now undoubtedly integral to their sides.
The challenge is even greater for midfield debutants like the 17-capped Dutchman. On top of having impressive technical quality a successful modern Premier League midfielder needs to build enhanced endurance and sharpness to cope with the end-to-end football and adapt to the co-ordinated pressing required. With real competition for places in midfield it perhaps shouldn’t be so surprising that he hasn’t been a regular yet. Patience is therefore required – both with expectations of his performances and in Solskjær’s use of him.
- Backing-up Bruno was always the plan
With a never ending desire for controversy, fans and media alike can’t help but stoke up drama around van de Beek and Solskjær. The reality of the situation is that it was always the plan to initially use him as a squad depth option and integrate him slowly, even if that integration has been more stunted than expected. Solskjær reportedly made this clear to van de Beek, who understands the situation and is happy at United.
A dose of realism is required. Right now there is no chance for van de Beek to play in his favoured number 10 role as it is filled by a player who has arguably been one of the best in the world this past year, Bruno Fernandes. The Portuguese is not going to lose his place in the team unless he is injured. This isn’t the doom and gloom many have made out though.
With United looking to compete for three trophies in the second half of the season, they could have played up to 60 games by the end. He may not seem it but Fernandes is human and will need preserving as the campaign moves towards its climax and the big games become bigger and more frequent. The likelihood is that there will be opportunities for van de Beek to shine as a more than adequate heir to Fernandes’s creative throne, coming in to take the pressure off Solskjær’s star man. This isn’t a bad scenario – knowing his short-term role he can be liberated, playing without pressure whilst being eased into his new environment, not to much mention learning of a master of the position.
- Value of versatility
Sometimes versatility can be to a player’s detriment and there’s no doubt that van de Beek hasn’t been able to consistently demonstrate where his best position is yet. He’s been provided with the odd scene to reveal his talents at different places, when what he really needs is regular performances at a single location.
Yet in 2021 and beyond his ability to threaten in different areas will show its real value. As well as the aforementioned number 10 position, van de Beek is capable of playing in a more box-to-box central midfield role, as he showed last season at Ajax. Next to a defensive midfield partner, he has the energy, vision and passing to be extremely effective. His defensive game needs development but we shouldn’t underestimate his ability to win tackles and make interceptions.
As a natural with both feet, he is also well suited to playing on either flank of the diamond that his Manager likes to turn to against certain opposition. The tight schedule of games has limited opportunities for Solskjaer to work on such tactical nuances in training but this will eventually change, allowing the spotlight on van de Beek’s versatility to really shine.
- The replacement for Pogba
The Paul Pogba Manchester United transfer circus may finally be coming to end this summer, with the club expected to sell their French World Cup winner after a rollercoaster five-year stay.
This loss for United will be van de Beek’s gain, with the Dutchman well placed to step into Pogba’s shoes. The money United will make from a transfer will need to be invested elsewhere, rather than finding a direct replacement. And why would they find one, when they already have a similar player in their ranks eager to consistently prove himself? There are some differences in their playing styles but ultimately they are both creative midfielders who like to make teams tick, get on the ball and create attacking opportunities. That van de Beek has been able to build experience in his career playing as part of the double midfield pivot Pogba tends to play in will also have a long-term benefit. If Pogba departs, van de Beek should get more chances.
- Ole’s instincts
Finally, what works in van de Beek’s favour in the long run is the attacking instincts of his new Manager. You could quickly pull together a montage of Ole Gunnar Solskjær waxing lyrical about the Manchester United traditions of attacking football and promoting youth. His new signing from the Eredivisie embodies both. He will know that not giving van de Beek a regular playing spot, or worse selling him after just one season (or sending him on loan this January), would undermine the beliefs he claims to fervently follow. And the Norwegian is instinctively an attacking coach, having spent years as a player under the tutelage of Sir Alex Ferguson, absorbing his knowledge and methods. If United are to develop into the future all-round attacking force Solskjær wants, then surely van de Beek will have a part to play.
The Manchester United career of Donny van de Beek has undoubtedly had a slow start. It has stumbled frustratingly out of the blocks. Nonetheless, a successful Manchester United career is a marathon, not a sprint – and the finishing line is a long way off for van de Beek yet.
Lead photo credit: The People’s Person