In a scintillating night of football, Manchester United beat Istanbul Basaksehir 4-1 in the Champions League.
The win puts United three points clear at the top of Group H and means that they could seal their progress to the Round of 16 with a draw next week against PSG. It was a brilliant display where The Red Devils got revenge for their dismal display in the first meeting between the two sides where they lost 2-1.
And while Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford will undoubtedly take the plaudits for their showstopping turns in the final third, the real engine at the heart of United’s pulsating performance, the power pushing Istanbul back and keeping The Red Devils driving forward was the one and only Donny van de Beek.
Signed in the summer, van de Beek joined Old Trafford with immense pedigree and respect from anyone who knows the game. The move appeared to be Ole Gunnar Solskjaer bolstering his attacking options so that he wouldn’t have to play Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba every game and could rotate and keep two creators on the field.
What ended up happening was that van de Beek barely featured for United. Coming into the game today he had played just 384 minutes, and 168 of those were in the EFL Cup. His absence from the side has been baffling given that whenever he has taken the field, he’s looked good almost every time.
Tonight he played in midfield next to Fred, and the result was United flying at Istanbul with incredible intensity and ferocity. United hammered their hosts for an hour and only when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made a raft of substitutions that disrupted his side’s flow did things become stodgy and Istanbul came back into the game.
But for that hour? It was a real throwback to the days when United were a legit force in English football. And van de Beek was at the heart of it all. The difference was simply that he always looks forward. Not that he always plays it forward, but he always looks to get the ball moving towards goal at speed. Paul Pogba is a genius but he can overplay and dwell on the ball too much, Nemanja Matic is another who takes and eon to make a pass and Scott McTominay’s passing is something of a novelty.
Bruno Fernandes in the league and European competition since the start of the 2017-18 season:
⬡ 139 games
⬢ 71 goals
⬢ 48 assists
Directly involved in a goal every 101 minutes… from midfield. ? pic.twitter.com/fdCLahFtas
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) November 24, 2020
Fred can be rough with his passing, but he at the very least has that same mentality as van de Beek: always looking forward. So when you pair him with van de Beek, it gives the Man Utd midfield a genuine propulsion.
That propulsion puts the attacking players on the ball in key attacking positions more often. Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial didn’t have to keep coming deep to search for the ball, they could stay high and knew the ball would reach them. So they did. And it did. And shots rained down like water. The fabulous football flowed freely.
Of course nothing is perfect, and the trade-off of the attacking momentum of the United midfield meant that the defence was more often exposed to counter-attacks. This is largely because The Red Devils’ defenders are not set-up to play high up the field and having a player like van de Beek in the middle means you need a more imposing and relentless screener than Fred (as impressive as the Brazilian’s game-high 5 tackles were – he made just 1 interception and Istanbul got at the United defence almost at will). Istanbul had plenty of chances, and a better side than they might have buried some of them and really hurt United. So it’s a risk.
Manchester United already know how to play in the big games. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Big Game Ballista is an incredibly effective weapon that has already taken PSG down this season and he will surely use it again next week.
Alex Telles for Man Utd vs. İstanbul Başakşehir:
◉ Most crosses (11)
◉ Most penalty area entries (8)
◉ Most chances created (4)
Superb service. ? pic.twitter.com/v4adD2z0IG
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) November 24, 2020
But big games are not United’s problem. United’s problem is games against teams that show up and sit deep, trying to do to United what United do to other big sides. The kind of sides that press the middle of the pitch to exploit the lack of creativity in the double pivot, or the dithering genius of Paul Pogba.
Donny van de Beek gives Manchester United a way to win those problem games. He solves their big problem. The propulsion he provides The Red Devils midfield (with Fred) will allow them to heap so much pressure on these defensive sides that they are much more likely to break. Van de Beek’s ease and comfort on the ball will mean that mid-block presses will be far less effective at shutting United down. This is what we saw tonight as Istanbul simply couldn’t cope with the relentless attacks. And surely a little defensive trade-off is worth it.
The Dutchman means that if an opponent sits on the brilliant Bruno Fernandes to shut United down, the team will have another option to use as a chief playmaker. Late on when Fernandes was subbed and van de Beek pushed up to no. 10, he played a scything pass through for United’s fourth goal, and then almost created a fifth for Mason Greenwood.
So, yes, Donny van de Beek could remain a rotation player, a back-up; but the first hour of the match showed the phenomenal potency and propulsion he can provide Manchester United’s full-strength side when unleashed. Is he as talented as Paul Pogba? No. Does he do what the midfield needs better than Paul Pogba? Yes.
After the match, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said van de Beek (and Edinson Cavani) are “learning how we want them to play” – but tonight was an object lesson in just how much Donny van de Beek already knows what Manchester United fan want to see: propulsion. One only has to hope Solskjaer realises that the Dutch dynamo is the one player he has capable of providing it.