Of everything that happened in the 2018/19 season, not much was more jaw-dropping than when upstarts Ajax pillaged the Santiago Bernabéu, leaving Real Madrid’s campaign in ruins.
A moment no one saw coming, this 4-1 sacking at the hands of Erik ten Hag’s boys temporarily re-established the Amsterdammers among Europe’s elite as well as ending Santiago Solari’s brief, chaotic tenure.
It was in every sense the fall of an empire. Real had been European champions for 1,012 days and the architect of this latest dynasty Zinedine Zidane who, several months after stepping down, would subsequently return. Being a superclub, with a mighty pull, they were down but not out.
Real will always go again, building the next great team, and they’ve been tremendously active this summer. Eden Hazard, a first proper Galáctico acquisition since James Rodríguez in 2014, plus Luka Jovic, Éder Militão and Ferland Mendy have joined. As for Ajax, it’s been the complete opposite, despite reaching the Champions League semi-finals, they operate in a different stratosphere.
Because of geography and economics, it’s expected for the Dutch champions to lose key personal. Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong, two generational talents, have since relocated to Juventus and Barcelona, respectively. Still, ahead of the new campaign, Ten Hag has managed to keep hold of a number of equally pivotal individuals.
However, that could soon be tested with Real keeping close tabs on Donny van de Beek, who didn’t always grab the headlines in their incredible journey.
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A curious approach
For a multitude of reasons, this prospective transfer is very intriguing. If reports are correct then Van de Beek isn’t priority number one. The consensus is he’s a fallback option if Real cannot prize Paul Pogba or Christian Eriksen away from England’s top division. To be in similar company only enhances Van de Beek’s stock, though he’s not quite yet on their level. Far from it. A year ago, the Dutchman wasn’t even guaranteed a place in Ten Hag’s first choice XI but, through sheer grit and determination, he forced his way in and never looked back.
The final six months of their historic 2018/19 campaign saw him play arguably his best football in what is still a young playing career, but it wasn’t enough to convince national team boss Ronald Koeman, which goes to show the competition for places is tough. The native of Nijkerkerveen has won seven Oranje caps to date but has only collected three of them as a starter, with the last coming in a 1-1 friendly draw away to Belgium in October 2018. That being said, if Real are watching, then you must be doing something right.
But we can’t escape the fact of this being a gamble for both parties. Van de Beek is at the stage of his career where he needs regular playing time. De Ligt and De Jong, who both said goodbye last month, will get that at their new homes. There’s a strong argument Real’s midfield needs rejuvenating, but is Van de Beek the answer considering they let go of two midfielders further on than him in Mateo Kovačić and Dani Ceballos? That’s not to say he can’t supersede them.
However, there are those who have doubts and feel he’s destined for the bench. Unlike the aforementioned Premier League duo, he’s not polished, nor comes with a grand reputation or can be described as ‘world-class’. Real, given their disastrous year, can ill-afford to be in a gambling mood, more so, as rivals Atlético Madrid and Barça are strengthening.
We’ve been here before with Los Blancos signing a flavour of the month – that’s not to say Maradonny (as Ajax supporters have affectionately dubbed him) can be described as that – only to fall by the wayside and irreparably damage their careers. There is no hiding place at the Bernabéu, you need to be on it from the get-go. Van de Beek is highly intelligent and will back himself but you fear this is a move too soon.
You can’t help but look at the system and stylistic approach he’ll be coming into, too. Whereas Barcelona and Maurizio Sarri’s Juventus are tailor-made for Van de Beek’s former teammates, you don’t get that sense with Real as Zidane doesn’t utilise a quasi-deep-lying forward, so a period of assimilation is needed but one that’s unlikely to be given as he would need to hit the ground running, especially given his rumoured price-tag.
Regardless of whether or not this is a smart move for all concerned, there is no doubt that Van de Beek is a player on an upward trajectory. Long-touted for an important role at his boyhood club, he was the natural successor to Davy Klaassen, who exited for Everton in 2016, a move that didn’t exactly turn out well. That being said, it is easy to see why a number of clubs (including Real themselves) are enamoured with him.
Van de Beek’s effectiveness, which makes him an interesting player, lies in his flexibility. As someone who grew up bathed in the Amsterdammers’ ‘total football’ or universalism approach, it comes as no surprise that he, and teammate Daley Blind, best champion that renowned philosophy. Van de Beek, blessed with a perfect first touch, combines individual skill with stamina to devastating effect.
His comfort in drifting out wide, instigating Ajax’s forward press, dropping deep to cover and smartly running into the penalty area was there for all to see last season; the latter, which is his greatest attribute, has, in particular, enabled him to pop up with 32 goals in 140 official matches, as well as creating a further 25. Having someone with these attributes, especially in today’s game, is a manager’s dream.
Whether that coach is Ten Hag or Zidane in 2019/20 remains to be seen.