Last season, Donny van de Beek was a bit of a lone wolf that’d just left the pack — an adorable but forlorn figure in the stands. Manchester United could always use wolves in battle but what they really needed last season were fire-breathing dragons to lead them.
They managed to procure one in Edinson Cavani, a rather old one who wanted to head back to his cave and whose flame was withering but was ultimately convinced to have one last flight on the European continent.
All the signs point towards United acquiring more of Cavani’s ilk this season to light up the theatre, which should definitely help Donny van de Beek. He only had a meagre 524 minutes. Juan Mata had 509, to put things into perspective.
There’s a case to be made about transitioning to a new league during a pandemic-strewn season but this was painfully low game time for a player who’s experienced a lot in his short career. Victor Lindelof and Fred were often cited as similar examples but they had 1,285 and 1,041 minutes on the board in their first seasons. There wasn’t the post-December minutes that we see with a lot of new signings either, which made it even more bizarre.
Now, there are some obvious reasons why van de Beek was unlikely to get a lot of minutes going into last season. The first is Bruno Fernandes. Fernandes is the hub of United’s largely heliocentric attack since his arrival. Luke Shaw’s renaissance and Paul Pogba’s occasional forays in an advanced role changed things a little but Fernandes was not only essential to United’s attacking unit but he was also the polar opposite of Donny van de Beek.
Let’s have a look at what makes Donny van de Beek so different to the Portuguese magnifico.
All number 10s aren’t the same
Donny van de Beek’s only nominally a number 10 as we’ve grown to understand that role. In the ‘90s, the Premier League had the likes of Eric Cantona, Dennis Bergkamp, and Gianfranco Zola; playmakers who ran their team’s offence and that’s not Donny van de Beek.
Here are a few passing networks from his time at Ajax that unravel how involved he was with the ball (courtesy BetweenThePosts):
It’s not a lot.
This image clearly clarifies that he’s not the busiest on-ball player in a position that often demands it.
There are a few reasons for this. At Ajax, Hakim Ziyech took on a role that was akin to the role played by Fernandes at United in that he was the busiest player in the final third. He was also a bit like what United fans have seen with Paul Pogba and Juan Mata in more advanced roles, where they move centrally from a wider position.
Dusan Tadic also had this unique role. He’d chest the ball from long kicks, drop deep to link up with the forwards. Being a fairly skillful player on the ball; he’d also dribble, create, and score goals.
Donny van de Beek was mostly playing on the last line of the defence, which is the sort of job Edinson Cavani does for the current United side. He was a number 10 on the team sheet mostly because Ajax’s defensive shape had him behind Tadic.
A full game would help but here are two phases of play that help give an idea of what that often looked like:
Here, Ziyech’s moved to that central space. He’s played the forward pass. Tagliafico quickly lays it off for the roaming Tadic and Van de Beek’s hoping to get at the end of the move in the box.
In this clip, Daley Blind plays a ball in between the lines for Dusan Tadic and Donny van de Beek’s on the last line trying to make a run. This sort of pattern was fairly common during his time at Ajax and these are the areas that you want him occupying.
Now, United have creative players but they don’t have too many players like Tadic but that shouldn’t be a big issue. They have Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial, and Edinson Cavani to act as focal points in the forward line. The three will go about it in different ways but there are definitely players for him to play off of.
In Sancho, Shaw, Fernandes, and Pogba, he’s also got players who’ll definitely find him when he goes on these runs. As long as he’s got two of them to dovetail with, he should be fine.
One of the other issues Donny van de Beek faced was that he’d come into the side for cup games with wholesale changes and could not play alongside some of the starters. There’s reason to question why Ole Gunnar Solskajer didn’t simply shuffle the pack more often but he’s alluded to knowing exactly what Van de Beek offers and we’ll just have to take his word for it.
Donny van de Beek’s also a good example of a player with great positional discipline, which is often ignored when examining sides that are great in possession. He’s not going to drop deeper than he needs to for touches of the ball, it’s then the job of the passers to find him cause he’s always going to stretch play.
His bag of tricks in the final third are unrivalled
Let’s leave aside what he did at Ajax and now look at what United have already got a glimpse of in limited minutes and why this would be of great value to any top side.
This goal from Mason Greenwood against Brighton is made possible cause of many of Van de Beek’s movements. His wide run opens up the lane for Shaw to find Fernandes. Daniel James’ run pulls another defender inwards, which allows Paul Pogba to get a shot/pass off and Donny van de Beek would’ve got a shot off if Greenwood didn’t get there before him.
This sort of intelligent movement will be of great value to United this season as they’re likely to have a lot of on-ball players in the likes of Anthony Martial, Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba and Jadon Sancho.
When you have too many players who like making things happen, there’s always the chance that they congest the same spaces. We saw this at times when Alexis Sanchez was at the club, often running into the same spaces that Paul Pogba did.
These unselfish runs will help the team’s spacing and are a great tactical solution. If the manager and his staff don’t have time to work on the tactics, just play those who have an intuitive understanding of what the side needs.
He’s also got an amazing bag of tricks in the box that are unrivalled probably in all of Europe. United have got a teaser of all of them.
At Ajax, 29 of Donny van de Beek’s 41 goals were first-time finishes. His first for United was also a first-time finish.
He loves this little flick and regularly plays them to great effect.
Believe most of the United faithful are used to the little dummies by now.
Here’s a link to his 41 goals for Ajax. It’s clear that he’s quite capable with his weaker left foot, which will give United something different. Many of United’s wingers love driving inwards, which can be a little predictable for defenders.
Here’s a simple tap-in that he lays off for Edinson Cavani. This might become a more common occurrence with the dutchman in the side.
Having a player who is so good in the final third is going to be extremely valuable against sides that frustrate and United should consider themselves fortunate to have a player with these distinctive attributes.
But what about Donny in a double pivot?
You’d really hope that United don’t see him as a deeper midfield player for long. They might have strong reasons to believe that he does. After all, you could pull the Paul Scholes was more of an advanced player before becoming one of the best deep-lying playmakers in Europe example but that had more to do with tactical eras. Today, most tactical systems get experimented on matchday, leaving little room for doubt on what’s the optimal way to use any player.
Having said that, he did well in the last two league games from the 2020/21 season alongside Nemanja Matic. United played a 4-2-4 shape with a mid-block and kept possession of the ball in their own half for long periods before finding the space to scythe through Leicester City and especially Wolves.
Van de Beek also resisted the urge to make his runs from deeper, making certain United weren’t vulnerable in defensive transition. Being a rotation option in deeper areas is always welcome for a side that’s looking to compete in all competitions. He’s also put on some muscle according to reports. It’s hard to gauge into what this will do for his game but it should help convince the manager that the league’s physicality will no longer be an issue.
It’s a cliché but Donny van de Beek will feel like a new signing going into the 2021/22 season. United will need everyone heading in the same direction if they’re to battle the other great houses and this writer believes that he’ll play a pretty big part.