Despite Manchester United being joint top of the league on points in the middle of January, one of the biggest stories around the club this season has been the playing time of Donny van de Beek. Or rather, the lack of playing time for Donny van de Beek.
United’s £35 million signing has struggled for game time this season. Something that shouldn’t really come as a surprise. His natural position is the number 10 spot — a position that is currently occupied by United’s best player. He can also play in a deeper midfield role — or rather, at Ajax he also played in a deeper midfield role — but that’s where United’s second best player resides. Then there’s also the whole “he needs to adapt to English football” thing, something that Bruno Fernandes made us forget takes time for most players.
Van de Beek’s talent stood out early in the season amongst a team of players completely off form. As the team has rounded into form since the start of November, he’s found minutes much more difficult to come by. The biggest reason for that is because at the moment, it’s very hard to figure out where he fits in this United team.
Van de Beek’s game isn’t the same as Bruno’s. His performances against RB Leipzig and West Ham showed that he’s not a like-for-like sub in the no. 10 role, making it hard to drop Bruno on his current form. As a central midfielder, van de Beek’s game is good, but as he’s shown in his brief looks there so far, it’s not necessarily good enough to command a place in the team.
On a technical level, van de Beek is probably the best midfielder United have. But football isn’t about putting your best 11 players on the pitch. It’s about putting your best team on the pitch. For everything a player does well, there’s something he doesn’t do as well, and those things need to be accounted for when picking an XI.
On Saturday Donny van de Beek got his third chance of the season to play in United’s double midfield pivot, and for the third time this year he showed us both how talented he is, and why Ole Gunnar Solskjaer rarely trusts him to play there.
It ultimately boils down to two things: his passing and his positioning.
Van de Beek is an extremely tidy passer. He keeps possession really well and completes a very high percentage of his passes. He also just doesn’t pass forward, which is what United need him to do.
In van de Beek’s three games that he’s started in the double pivot of a 4-2-3-1 (not games where he started in a diamond or further up the field) only 118 of the 209 passes he attempted (56.46%) have been forwards. That’s the lowest percentage of any of United’s defensive midfielders (Fred - 67.28%, Scott McTominay - 63.23%, Nemanja Matić - 69.71%).
Take a look at van de Beek’s pass chart of just his forward passes against Watford.
It’s not bad, but it’s not very incisive either.
There’s a value to having a safe player back there who keeps and recycles possession, but that’s what you want someone like Matić doing, not someone with the creativity of van de Beek. Against Watford, 76.79% of McTominay’s passes were forwards (compared to 59.46% of VDB’s — his highest total in a game this season). Against Istanbul Basaksehir the numbers broke down similarly between VDB and Fred. That’s not what you want, it should be the opposite. You want van de Beek taking on the creativity and the players who don’t have his passing ability just keeping possession.
United need ball progression and creativity to come from that midfield pivot. If it’s not providing that, then it sure needs to be good defensively to allow others (usually the fullbacks) to help contribute in that area. That’s where van de Beek has been his weakest.
An early sequence on Saturday exemplified this best (apologies for the speed of the GIF).
United win the ball back on the right and Donny sees open space and an opportunity to get forward. This is great — forward runs from midfielders are what will ultimately make United their most dangerous and they’re highly encouraged by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. But when you make that run, someone needs to cover you.
It’s not any one specific person that has to do it, it just has to be someone. Usually that’s Bruno Fernandes. Just watch here how he falls back when he notices Fred pushing up on the press.
Bruno holds his position until Fred is able to get back. Then they seamlessly shift back.
When Van de Beek pushed up on Saturday, no one dropped back, leaving a massive space in the middle of the pitch uncovered.
This isn’t Donny’s fault. He sees the space, he makes the run. But someone needs to cover for him. That could be anyone. McTominay comes back from the right and slots himself into the right central midfield position, never bothering to move over more centrally. Even then, that’s too much for him to cover on his own, someone needs to help him. Jesse Lingard could drop back, but he doesn’t.
The simplest way to cover this — and the way most teams these days do — is to have one of the fullbacks tuck into midfield. Brandon Williams could push up a bit to hold the RCM position and allow McTominay to shift over.
Or you can have Alex Telles tuck inside from the left-back position, but by the time he comes back into the picture we can see he’s coming back from being out wide.
That’s a space that has to be protected. It’s true that there are no Watford players there and it doesn’t look a threat, but one run and one pass can quickly change that. This is why you have holding midfielders, to protect your back four. If you leave this space open you get... well what happened against Crystal Palace.
Case in point a few minutes later. United get the ball at the edge of the box, Donny goes on another run. Once again no one fills the space and when McTominay makes a poor pass, it’s off to the races.
There’s a bit of a chicken and egg thing going on here. Do players like Lingard and McTominay not look for these runs because none of United’s forwards ever really make them, or do the forwards not make those runs because they’ve figured out that Lingard and McTominay don’t have the passing ability to play that ball in?
You may have seen @UtdArena’s graphic with United’s average positions for this game. Look at the gap between van de Beek and McTominay.
That’s just WAY too big a gap. You can get away with this against Watford, but do this against the top 14-16 teams in the Premier League and you’ll get eaten alive. You have to be able to keep your position better than this. There’s a reason Ole has only tried out van de Beek in a pivot against Basaksehir (twice) and Watford.
At the end of the day Watford turned 34 percent possession into 18 shots (one fewer than United). Numbers like that are usually a tell-tale sign of a team getting through your midfield far too easily.
In between the two above sequences we see what’s supposed to happen. Again United get the ball near the box and again van de Beek makes a run forward. This time Juan Mata notices it and drops back to cover the vacated space.
Mata is a player who likes to cut inside so it was no surprise that he was often the one covering for van de Beek’s runs. The tradeoff there is that Van de Beek pushed forward centrally, and with no right winger that meant Mason Greenwood would often head over to the right side to look for the ball, which sort of negates the purpose of Greenwood starting as your number 9.
When played right, football is a pulley system. When something gives something else has to take. You need smart players to be able to play like this. You need players who can identify that when one player goes on a certain run they need to cover for them.
At the moment, Donny van de Beek’s brain is just at a different level than almost everyone on the United team bar Bruno Fernandes and Juan Mata.
That’s the issue. Right now United aren’t capable of playing the way van de Beek is used to playing from his days at Ajax. Since you’re never going to get 10 players to conform to one player you need that one to conform to the other 10.
So far, that hasn’t happened. That’s not to say it never will. Van de Beek is incredibly talented. He’s adjusting to English life which has only been made much more complicated due to lockdowns. He’s adjusting to English football and he’s adjusting to Manchester United.
For Donny to play in the pivot he needs a very defensive partner next to him. His 60 minute trial run next to Nemanja Matić against Basaksehir was a disaster, but it’s far too small a sample size to draw widespread conclusions. The only problem is Paul Pogba also needs to play alongside Matić if he’s going to play in a pivot, and Matić can only play once a week (at most). And lately Pogba has been much more effective than van de Beek.
Maybe next season Paul Pogba will be gone, new players will have come in and United will be playing more of a style that suits van de Beek. You never know. We do know that there are many players who struggle in their first year in England and go on to become fantastic players. There’s no reason why that can’t happen with Donny.
But right now, he’s just not there yet. Meanwhile, the rest of his team keeps winning, so much so that United have unexpectedly found themselves almost in a t**** r***. Given those circumstances, it’s hard for the manager to give more time to a player who just isn’t fitting in with the rest of the team just yet.