Football Features

Donny van de Beek: How does new Man United signing fit into Solskjaer’s team?

By Muhammad Butt

Donny van de Beek: Man Utd line-up options with new midfield signing

Published: 17:48, 2 September 2020

Manchester United have signed Donny van de Beek from Ajax.

The 23-year-old Dutch midfielder has signed for a reported fee in the region of £40 million, making him the first signing of the summer window for the Red Devils. Of course Man United have been linked with many other players, but the majority of them have not been attacking midfielders as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer appears to have been mainly looking to strengthen his squad in areas of weakness.

Signing Van de Beek has left some fans and pundits confused as to why Man United would spend significant money on what appears to be a squad player. But whilst attacking midfield was certainly not the highest priority position for the Red Devils this summer, there is a very clear reason for Man United pursuing the Dutch midfielder and it isn’t just to add to their collection of Vans (Van der Gouw, Van Nistelrooy, Van der Sar and Van Persie).

What does Donny do?

Van de Beek is a sensationally well-rounded midfielder whose skill-set covers everything you’d want a midfielder’s to. In a way he defies the modern specialist terms of “attacking” and “defensive” and would instead just be labelled a midfielder in an old-school way that would surely satisfy even the surliest of former-Man United legends. The tendency is to call him box-to-box but that’s just because he can and thus does contribute at both ends of the pitch.

In the 2019/20 season, Van de Beek scored eight goals, completed 22/34 take-ons, created 41 chances leading to five assists, made 47 tackles and completed 320 final third passes in the Eredivisie. His statistical profile allows him to match or better every midfielder on Man United’s books. After losing Frenkie de Jong, Van de Beek stepped up to run the show for Ajax in a rejigged midfield and was looking to lead them to a second consecutive league title before the Eredivisie season was ended early.

Where does Donny fit?

The question of where Van de Beek fits in at Man United is a simple one: wherever he has to. This is a player who certainly excels in one particular area, but who can play in many ones. And coming into a midfield where you have two world-class talents in Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba, a multi-functional footballer is a wonderful addition.

One of Man United’s chief problems has been breaking down defensive sides. For instance their recent elimination from the Europa League came from their inability to take apart a stubborn Sevilla rearguard in the semi-final. Part of the problem here is that one of the midfielders is usually there solely for defensive purposes.

Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay are stoppers, powerful defensive players who contribute almost nothing in attack. Even Fred, who is definitely a more progressive midfielder than them, isn’t a truly expansive passer or a consistent goal threat. All this means that Man United are carrying a passenger, which limits their creative options.

Put Van de Beek in that midfield, and suddenly all three of Man United’s trio in the middle can create and threaten goal. Suddenly you can’t leave any of Man United’s midfielders alone because any of them can create danger.

It’s perhaps not a workable unit for bigger games against better opponents, where a more specialised defensive presence like McTominay would better benefit Man United. But to beat and break down opponents he would help tremendously.

Man Utd squad: Depth and rotation

The beauty of signing Van de Beek is that he can play more than one role for Man United. His natural role is playing as a more advanced midfielder, driving forward into the box, exploiting space and scoring goals.

Now, of course, that role is currently occupied by Fernandes. And the Portuguese will retain that role because of his incredible influence on the team, but he’s also one man and cannot play every single game. Similarly Van de Beek could play a more measured role from deep, orchestrating play with a range of passes. Pogba does that right now, but again, he cannot play every single game.

With Man United back in the Champions League, the idea that they could spend an entire season with just two top-quality attacking midfielders was always something of a bad joke. Rotation was always going to happen, but right now Man United would be rotating with subpar performers like Andreas Pereira and Jesse Lingard (or the ageing Juan Mata). Pereira played 1,488 minutes in the Premier League last season, and until Fernandes showed up and Mason Greenwood burst onto the scene he was genuinely a starter for the club. Lingard didn’t score or assist until the last game of the season. He is not good enough to be the first change.

Donny van de Beek: Man Utd line-up options with new midfield signing

Van de Beek changes all that. Suddenly Man United can take either Fernandes or Pogba (or both) out of the starting XI and not suffer a massive drop in quality. Van de Beek’s quality will keep Man United fluent in goals and progressive passing even without one of their two superstars. That is a big development for a club that is aiming to play 60 games next season as well as challenge for the title.

After all, champions Liverpool can call on the likes of Gini Wijnaldum and Takumi Minamino as their back-ups and are looking to add Thiago Alcantara to their options, which would render one of Jordan Henderson or Naby Keita a back-up. Meanwhile, runners-up Man City have an embarrassment of riches in terms of players that are on the bench every single week.

That’s the level Man United want to be on, and the signing of Van de Beek is their first step on the way there.