27 goals and 24 assists in the last two seasons; the scourge of Real Madrid and Juventus in the Champions League: Donny van de Beek has been scouted by the biggest clubs in Europe, and Manchester United look to have won the race. £40million is more than a fair price for a very good footballer, but has he been signed to sit on the bench?
We can’t have it both ways: have a go at United for not doing any business and then tear them apart when they get unquestionably good deals over the line. Van de Beek is an excellent signing; Ed Woodward deserves credit. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wanted to add “quality” to his squad. This is that.
But there is a question of tactics: of team shape and balance. Solskjaer now has a very welcome selection headache.
Frank de Boer once recalled how Dennis Bergkamp pegged Van de Beek as a special talent from a young age: “Dennis started talking enthusiastically about a talent in his youth team. It was a boy who reminded Dennis of himself at that age. That was the signal for me to keep an eye on that guy. That was Donny.”
Should Van de Beek reach anywhere near Bergkamp’s heights in the Premier League we’re in for a treat, but it does also add weight to the arguments of those wondering why United have signed such a player.
Donny van de Beek has been directly involved in 32 goals [17⚽️ & 15🅰️] in 50 Eredivisie starts since the start of last season. He has had a hand in 8 goals [5⚽️ & 3🅰️] in 16 Champions League starts in that period.
A versatile & intelligent midfielder. 🇳🇱 pic.twitter.com/akON8XjzeM
— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) August 30, 2020
Van de Beek’s position has changed in the last two seasons. Used predominantly as a No.10 in 2018/19, he has more recently been used as part of a midfield three, sometimes as the deepest lying member of that trio. And while this role – and his success in it – seems to have been a successful audition for United, the Ajax manager’s reluctance to leave him without a defensive-minded comrade in midfield for the big games suggests an understudy will be necessary in the Premier League.
The hypothetical, fanciful scenario for Solskjaer would be to play Van de Beek, Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes in midfield, either as an interchangeable three or with one of them slightly more advanced. But particularly when faced with tougher opponents, Erik ten Hag has been reticent to leave Van de Beek overburdened for Ajax, often moving centre-back Lisandro Martinez up the pitch to play alongside him. That was unsurprisingly the case against Chelsea and Valencia in the Champions League, but also – more worryingly for United fans – against RKC Waalwijk, PEC Zwolle and SC Heerenveen in the Eredivisie.
When Pogba returned from injury, even with a defensive shield, questions were asked as to whether he and Fernandes could play in the same team. Against lesser sides it’s been proven to work brilliantly; against title challengers and Champions League-quality opposition that’s still very much up for discussion. Add another attack-minded midfielder instead of Nemanja Matic, Fred or Scott McTominay and what was a sensible, potentially lengthy debate over midfield balance instead becomes a quick, one-sided barrage and forced submission for the dreamers. United would play some beautiful football, but they would concede a hell of a lot of goals.
Solskjaer will be well aware of this. He’s no fool. He has recognised that good teams become great through competition for places and players being forced to get better due to pressure from their teammates. Clubs don’t generally win titles with a great team and little besides. Liverpool are an outlier. To challenge for the big prizes United need to look at what Bayern Munich have and what Chelsea are creating: incredible strength in depth that means the best players can be given a break without a significant drop in the team’s performance. Something Solskjaer was unable to grant the likes of Fernandes and Pogba in the draining final weeks of last season.
Van de Beek has not been signed to slot straight into United’s team: he will have to fight and prove that he is worth his place ahead of another very talented footballer, whoever that might be. This isn’t a transfer misstep, but a stride towards the return of a United squad rather than a team constantly on the brink of exhaustion.
Will Ford is on Twitter