Donny van de Beek has been a primary topic of discussion in the Manchester United fan base since his arrival at the club last September.
The central midfielder, who joined United on a five-year,￡40 million deal from his boyhood club Ajax, was rated as one of Europe’s best young midfielders and renowned for his elite football IQ, technical ability, vision, off-the-ball movement, and goal creation at the time of his arrival.
However, it has been difficult for van de Beek to find consistent playing time in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s squad this season. Despite being a regular in the starting eleven for the Carabao Cup and FA Cup — while Bruno Fernandes rests — the Dutchman has only started in two of 13 Premier League appearances. Van de Beek wasn’t included in 11 of United’s 24 league matches so far, notably recent draws to Everton, Arsenal, and Liverpool in which his creativity and energy could have benefited the team.
When given the nod by Solskjaer to play, he is typically substituted onto the pitch with roughly 15 to 20 minutes remaining, which isn’t nearly long enough for him to settle into games, find his best form, and adapt to the team. He also still plays Ajax’s quick give-and-go football and plays in the direction he’s facing, which doesn’t suit United’s style of counter attacking football and driving forward with the ball into space. That could easily be fixed with adaptation and game time.
United legend Dimitar Berbatov spoke about van de Beek’s lack of playing time in an interview with Betfair on Feb. 12.
“Hopefully, he is integrated into the team and the boys are helping him out. If he gets a chance he has to try to impress, but it’s very difficult to do that when you’re getting five or 10 minutes here and there.”
The reason for his lack of playing time seems simple: Solskjaer views the 23-year-old solely as a like-for-like replacement for Fernandes in the No. 10 role, and there’s simply no way Fernandes, the catalyst who has recorded 33 goals and 19 assists since joining the club last February, according to OptaJoe, will be replaced by anyone for the foreseeable future.
In some ways, it’s hard to argue with the manager’s reasoning that the Dutchman should be played as a No. 10. Van de Beek is an attacking midfielder by trade who’s eager to get on the ball, combine with forwards, make runs in behind defenders, and create goals. He gained worldwide recognition as a No. 10 for his integral role in Ajax’s fairy tale run to the 2018-19 UEFA Champions League semifinals, as he scored the game-winning goals in matches against Juventus and Tottenham Hotspur while tallying an assist along the way. Additionally, he exemplified his creativity and attacking prowess by recording nine goals and 10 assists in 34 Eredivisie matches that season.
The reality, however, is that van de Beek is not solely an attacking midfielder, and he has proved to benefit teams and impress in other midfield roles. Following Frenkie de Jong’s departure from Amsterdam to Barcelona in the summer of 2019, van de Beek moved into a deeper role as a box-to-box midfielder in Erik ten Hag’s squad. He started 24 of 25 games in all competitions during Ajax’s 2019-20 campaign, typically featuring as the right-sided No. 8 in a double pivot. The Dutchman tallied 10 goals and seven assists in 30 games across all competitions despite the shortened season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, proving that he has the ability to score and create goals from deeper in the midfield. He additionally showed his defensive ability by winning 35 tackles and making 23 interceptions in all competitions, per Football Reference.
With this in mind, it makes you wonder why Solskjaer has yet to give van de Beek the chance to prove himself and earn playing time as a No. 8. Being that Paul Pogba is out of the squad for at least the rest of February while he recovers from a thigh injury, now seems like the ideal time for van de Beek to prove to the manager that he deserves consistent game time and can thrive in other roles, barring injury.
The Dutchman unfortunately sustained a muscular injury in training this week, according to the Manchester Evening News, and did not travel with the squad to Turin, Italy for Thursday night’s 4-0 win over Real Sociedad in the UEFA Europa League Round of 32, a match he most likely would’ve featured in. Solskjaer believes van de Beek could be fit to rejoin the squad for Sunday’s match against Newcastle United, though, which could be his chance to put his skills on display in the No. 8 role.
Another reason for van de Beek’s lack of game time might not even be his fault at all. It has been evident all season that center backs Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelöf are the team’s weak spot, as neither complements the other’s style of play. Both defenders, who aren’t quick by any means, must be partnered next to a fast center back in order for them to play at their best. As seen on Thursday, Eric Bailly’s pace behind him allowed Maguire to get forward up the pitch and have one of his best performances of the season. Bailly has had his share of injuries this season, however, meaning that Maguire and Lindelöf will likely continue to play together as the season progresses.
Given this weakness, Solskjaer has been forced to play with two holding midfielders—Fred and Scott McTominay on most occasions—in front of the back line as reinforcements, which has hindered van de Beek’s opportunity to feature in one of those roles. He’s proven that he can still create goals from deeper in midfield while also exuding a high defensive work rate, but Solskjaer might believe that he can’t afford to give the Dutchman a test run as a No. 8 because of United’s defense. With the potential additions of a fast center back and a proven defensive midfielder in the upcoming summer transfer window, van de Beek has an increased chance of cementing his role as a No. 8 next season.
Berbatov offered van de Beek some words of encouragement for the remainder of the season.
“For now, he just needs to train hard, stay motivated, stay positive which isn’t always going to be easy. He can’t get stuck with the negative thought that it’s not working for him at United, because then it will be really tough for him.”
Nevertheless, United must play its best players in every match, and van de Beek certainly ranks up there with the best given his quality. The team has been desperate for creativity on many occasions this season, and the Dutchman can offer that in multiple positions. A midfield trio of Fernandes as the No. 10, van de Beek as the No. 8, and either Fred, Nemanja Matić, or Scott McTominay as the No. 6 looks superb on paper, but fans will have to continue to wait to see if van de Beek is given his time to shine.