Donny Van de Beek: The Answer to United’s Midfield Malaise?

In a sport where the gap between the ultra-rich and the not-so-rich widens every day, it’s increasingly rare that we see teams outside of Europe’s elite go deep in the Champions League. Johan Cruyff famously said, “Why couldn’t you beat a richer club? I’ve never seen a bag of money score a goal.” But as the likes of Juventus, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain extend their hegemonies in their respective domestic leagues, that adage holds far less water today.

Every now and then, however, there comes a Cinderella Story that dares the neutral fan to believe in magic. In 2019, Cruyff’s boyhood club Ajax eliminated Real Madrid and Juventus en route to the Champions League semifinal, before losing to Tottenham Hotspur courtesy of a Lucas Moura hat-trick. But despite the last-minute heartbreak, it was an unforgettable season for de Godenzonen, who won their first league title since 2014, their first domestic double since 2002, and proved that, despite not being the heavyweights they once were, they could still make miracles happen against the continent’s finest.

It hasn’t taken long for Europe’s top spenders to pick apart that magical Ajax side, however. Frenkie de Jong signed for Barcelona four months before the season ended, Matthijs de Ligt joined Juventus for a mouth-watering fee of €75 million, and Hakim Ziyech will be playing his football at Stamford Bridge next season. There are others, such as Donny van de Beek, who could follow their footsteps and depart Amsterdam this summer.

At 23 years old, Van de Beek is already attracting interest from the likes of Real Madrid and Manchester United and, with the Eredivisie season being cancelled after just 25 matches, Ajax will be looking to make up for lost cash by selling him for a hefty fee.

Growing up in a farmhouse in the small town of Nijkerkerveen, Van de Beek got his first taste for the game at four years of age when his father took him to an Ajax game. Since then, he was hooked on not just football, but Ajax.

He began his footballing development at local club Veensche Boys where his father Andre also played, but soon joined Ajax’s esteemed academy at the age of 11. He rose up the youth ranks, being awarded the prestigious ‘Talent van de Toekomst’ for the 2014/15 season, an annual award given to the best talent in Ajax’s academy. Previous winners of the award include Rafael van der Vaart (2000), Wesley Sneijder (2002), and Christian Eriksen (2010).

On 26th November 2015, then Ajax manager Ronald de Boer gave him his first-team debut in a Europa League fixture at Celtic Park, before starting him in the following weeks against PEC Zwolle, Heerenveen, and Molde. At the time, Van de Beek mostly played for the U-19s following a 2-1 victory against Feyenoord, impressing in the UEFA Youth League alongside Ajax prodigies Carel Eiting and Václav Černý. 

In the summer of 2016, however, Van de Beek took the bold decision to not play in the U-19 Euros in Germany.  Instead he chose to train with Ajax’s first team during their preseason and learn the ropes under new manager, Peter Bosz. Still just 19, the Dutchman mainly played for Jong Ajax in the first half of the season before becoming a reliable off-the-bench performer as Ajax advanced to the Europa League Final, where they would eventually lose to José Mourinho’s Manchester United.

The summer departure of Davy Klaassen, who joined Everton for £23.6 million, was a significant moment in Van de Beek’s transition from benchwarmer to regular first team player. There was now an empty space in the team’s midfield and the opportunity to take up the responsibility the ex-captain had left behind. Van de Beek began the season on the right foot, capitalising on a mistake from Nice goalkeeper Yoann Cardinale and scoring a vital away goal in the Champions League qualifiers. He celebrated the equalizer by holding up three fingers on his right hand and four fingers on his left hand in honor to his teammate and best friend Abdelhak Nouri, who wore the #34 shirt during his time at Ajax. Three weeks prior to the match, Nouri suffered a cardiac arrhythmia attack in a friendly against Werder Bremen, leaving him with permanent brain damage and ending his footballing career at the age of 20.

Since that life-changing moment, Van de Beek used Nouri’s tragedy to fuel him to improve. He earned his maiden call-up to the senior Netherlands side by Dick Advocaat in November 2017 and became a fully fledged starter for Ajax under Marcel Keizer. Operating alongside Hakim Ziyech and Lasse Schöne, Van de Beek became what is referred to in Spain as a ‘todoterreno.’ As the classic box-to-box midfielder, he would constantly retreat to win back possession before then breaking into the opposition half the second Ajax won the ball back to be at the edge of the box ready to latch onto any scoring opportunity. His goal scoring talents were on view for the whole world to see on 18th November 2017, when he scored his first professional hat-trick in a 8-0 victory against NAC Breda. ‘Maradonny,’ as the Ajax faithful refer to him, finished his first season as a starter with 13 goals and 6 assists, helping Ajax finish 2nd just four points below PSV.

For a player so young Van de Beek has racked up an impressive goal-scoring tally, recording double figures in both goals and assists over the past two years. His breakout season last year showcased his innate ability to predict where the ball will go seconds before it’s played, a poacher’s instinct best suited for a striker but far more rare in a central midfielder. Despite not playing with a natural center forward, Ajax boasted one of the most dangerous attacks in Europe in 2018/2019 thanks in no small part to Van de Beek, a player who can penetrate the space vacated by Ziyech and Tadić. Arriving in the right area at the right time without dawdling on the ball, Van de Beek is a player with enough technical ability to weave his way past defenses on the counter, but with enough energy to track back and win possession in deep areas.

There are varying sources that claim that Van de Beek rejected a move to Roma midway through the 2018 summer transfer window because he wanted to win the league title before leaving Amsterdam. Whether that’s true or not, what is certain is that his value more than doubled that season, as the young Dutchman exhibited his potential on the Champions League stage. Initially benched for the opening group game against AEK Athens, Van de Beek then came on for the injured Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and immediately made his impact. Sensing a potential goal, he crept past the defense, finding himself in a pocket of space in the box, before slamming home a Dušan Tadić cross to seal the victory.

Against Bayern Munich in the second group game he was in sparkling form again, running off the shoulder of Niklas Süle to latch onto Ziyech’s one-time pass, before placing an inch-perfect cross for Tadić to slam into an empty net. After his Ajax team had swept aside reigning champions Real Madrid in the last 16, with Van de Beek bagging an assist in the process, they faced Juventus in the quarters. Against the Italian champions, he barely kept himself at length with the last defender, collecting a pass from Ziyech at the edge of the penalty spot, before slotting a vital equaliser past Wojciech Szczęsny. Against Tottenham, he patiently waited for a cross from David Neres, who recycled the ball centrally. He adjusted his position, finding himself in space between Danny Rose and Jan Vertonghen, before turning to receive Ziyech’s through ball on the front foot to slot home beyond Hugo Lloris. 

These performances showcased everything that sets this exciting but unrefined talent apart from the rest. Given the sheer number of quality players Ajax have produced for decades now, you can’t help but think they’ve done it again.

As he enters his prime, however, Van de Beek will improve his efficiency in front of goal as well as the precision of his runs. The only question is, what team will enjoy his best years? With just two years left on his current contract, it’s clear that he will either leave this summer or next, but after narrowly missing out on a move to Real Madrid last year, he’ll be eager to not miss another big-money move. While Los Blancos have cooled their interest given the breakthrough season of loanee Martin Ødegaard at Real Sociedad, other teams are following Van de Beek’s progression with great interest. 

Newcastle United have been linked as a surprise contender for his signature, but outside factors could influence the trajectory of this story. With the World Trade Organisation recently ruling that Saudi Arabia facilitated piracy and illegal screening of Premier League matches, the PIF takeover of Newcastle has been brought into question. As such, it’s yet to be seen whether they’ll have the funds to sign Van de Beek, who would likely cost upwards of €45 million. Aside from the Toons, Bayern Munich are a likely option — if their pursuit of Kai Havertz collapses — while Barcelona have also been sniffing around. With Arturo Vidal well into his 30s, a reunion with De Jong in Quique Setién’s midfield could spell a new era for the Blaugrana as Messi’s career enters it’s twilight years. 

But by far and away, the team in prime position for the Dutchman’s signature, however, are Manchester United. Paul Pogba’s injury-riddled 2019/20 season and refusal to agree a new deal at Old Trafford has led many to believe that next season will be his last in Manchester. If that is the case, then a summer move for Van de Beek makes sense. In order to become a perennial top four side again, United need to dramatically improve their squad depth especially in the center of the pitch. Jesse Lingard and Andreas Pereira have failed to convince in recent seasons and, while Van de Beek won’t come cheap, he’d certainly be a welcome upgrade bringing with him an ever-present goal threat.  Signing Van de Beek this summer would allow United to ease him in under Pogba’s wing without too much pressure to contribute, test a future partnership between Van de Beek and Bruno Fernandes and avoid paying a premium that would have likely come after this year’s European Championships were they not postponed.

Is it possible to fit Pogba, Fernandes, and Van de Beek all into the same midfield? Only time will tell, but history suggests it can be done. There are various ways Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could incorporate all of them into the same team — by playing a 4-4-2 diamond with Van de Beek operating as an interior midfielder on the other side of Pogba, or by playing a 4-2-3-1 with Van de Beek drifting off Fernandes. While having three ‘attacking’ midfielders in the same team would saddle the holding midfielder (likely either Nemanja Matić or Scott McTominay) with plenty of defensive responsibility, Van de Beek has shown that he has the work-rate, dedication and aggression to help out at the back. 

Even in a post-Pogba United, there is potential for Van de Beek to build a similar chemistry with Fernandes to that of which he formed with Ziyech at Ajax. Should Solskjaer go with his trusted 4-2-3-1, with Anthony Martial up top and Marcus Rashford playing off the left, then that would see Fernandes and Van de Beek likely making up the next two spots on the front four. Whether the Dutchman would be playing off the right or through the hole, it doesn’t matter; he isn’t limited to a position. Perhaps that’s what makes Van de Beek so valuable, so intriguing, and so unique. He lives off his movement; occupying spaces to facilitate the build-up, finding himself in ideal scoring positions, drifting around the pitch and exploiting whatever space is available to him going forward.

It should be noted, however, that just because Van de Beek has the ability to arrive in the box at just the right time and at just the right location doesn’t mean he’s a similar player to Thomas Müller or Kai Havertz. Van de Beek is by and large a central midfielder, and he’s operated in a deeper role this season to compensate for the departure of Frenkie de Jong. This has allowed him a greater share of possession but it’s by no means hurt his attacking numbers. Van de Beek’s best strength is his ability to anticipate where his teammates are and where they will move to and, while this trait is most evident in an attacking role, it will carry him wherever he plays.

Donny Van de Beek is a truly exceptional talent, make no mistakes about it. The combination of his natural attacking instincts and high energy defending make him the ideal candidate for a Manchester United midfield that has been seriously lacking bite for some years now. His rise so far has been meteoric but well thought out, meaning a hastily decided move is unlikely to be part of the Van de Beek story. But as Manchester United face the uphill task of securing a Champions League spot, all eyes will be on a midfield where every mistake it makes will only amplify the calls for a certain Dutchman.

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