Donny van de Beek a 6, 8 or 10: What can he bring to the Old Trafford?

With Donny van de Beek’s move to the Theatre of Dreams all but done, let us have a look at what can he bring to the team’s midfield and to their attacking unit.

Donny van de Beek is definitely among the most unique footballers in top-flight football today and it is a bit unfortunate that it is not yet a widely known fact among mainstream fans. Lets quickly look at what makes him that unique and whether or not it makes sense for Manchester United to splurge the cash to bring him to Old Trafford:

The picture probably says it all but let’s have a look at what it is in detail

Yes, you read it right…de Beek loves space! Although a midfielder, de Beek has the innate attacking ability and an eye-for-space, which makes him most effective in and around the box. The Dutchman’s intuitions are almost always right in those areas and he never shies away from making runs in-behind the defense and/or into the box. Owing to this, Ajax coach Erik Ten Haag never bothered to alter this side of his game and let him flow free.

The first time I had seen de Beek in full flow was when Ajax had started peaking with a winning-eleven in place towards the end of 2017–18 season. One of the very first comparisons I made to relate to him as an attacking midfielder was Thomas Muller. Even if de Beek isn’t at that level yet in terms of quality, he for sure seems to be cut from the same fabric.

Looking at some of his goals, it would be easier to understand what we are talking about here:

As you can see from the game against Athens in 2018–19 UEFA Champions League group stage game, as one defender stays with the dribbler and the other one taken out by David Neres’ run into near post, Van de Beek spots the opportunity from outside the box and makes a run out to far post
An intelligent run followed by a volley of supreme technique to beat the goalkeeper
Another example of an intelligent run-in by van de Beek with the further-most Ajax player taking out the center-back along with him

He also excels in finding those little pockets of space against an organised back-four and makes short bursts of runs in-behind them to put himself in goal-scoring positions. This is why he’s probably the closest thing to Muller in football today…

van de Beek’s goal against Tottenham in the 2018–19 UEFA Champions League Semi-Finals, where he does enough just to break the offside trap
Yet another example of finding space in between the back-four and making a quick run-in followed by a cheeky fake-shot to make a fool out of the goalkeeper

With finding space, making runs and in general, a high IQ in attack being his biggest strengths, there is absolutely no doubt that van de Beek should be deployed in the final-third, allowing him to operate in and around the penalty area, than in deeper positions. Even if you take a look at the numbers, it is pretty clear from where he scores his goals.

Goals scored by the two players since 2017–18 in all competitions: You can see the similarity in the areas they get their goals from (Goals from penalty area include 6-yard box as well)

Manchester United have not had a central midfielder arriving at the box to finish their attacking moves in a long time now. Let’s have a look at the heatmap of United’s midfielders in the 2019–20 Premier League:

From left: Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, Andreas Pereira, Juan Mata & Bruno Fernandes

It is clear that United’s midfielders aren’t actively involved inside the penalty area except on an occasional basis. Now let’s have a look at de Beek’s heatmap to get an idea of how vast the difference is:

As you can see, van de Beek’s involvement in the penalty area is much higher as compared to any of the midfielders United have had over the past 4 years

While we still do not know if United would be able to bring in a new striker in this window, the goal-scoring responsibility relies heavily upon United’s front-three with Bruno & Pogba pitching. But now van de Beek could come handy in terms of sharing some of the load in terms of goal-scoring if he manages to find the net 10+ times over the course of the season

Donny van de Beek’s connection with Dusan Tadic has been key to Ajax as well as tothe Dutchman’s evolution as one of the most promising attacking midfielders in Europe

As mentioned earlier, the most obvious way to get the best out of van de Beek is to allow him operate as the most advanced midfielder on the pitch and allowing link up with the front-three. However as he would start most of his runs or link-ups from central areas, his connection with the number 9 of the team is absolutely vital to leverage his impact.

At Ajax, Dusan Tadic has established this connection with him over the last couple of seasons which has allowed de Beek to bring out the best of himself. The quick give-and-gos, lay-offs and off-the-ball movement are all key for the two to work together and they duo does it effortlessly. Another underlying factor for this to work is also the kind of number ‘9’ that Tadic is for Ajax. He excels in a variety of things like dropping deeper into space, going wide to swap positions with wingers, receiving the ball with back to goal to hold-up play for de Beek to bounce passes off.

Tadic and van de Beek connect at the edge of the penalty area to break through the Valencia back-four
Tadic takes out Zouma to free up space for van de Beek to arrive into a scoring position and the Dutchman makes no mistake

Interestingly enough, Manchester United have a number ‘9’ in Martial who plays in a strikingly similar role. The 2019–20 season has especially been key for the Frenchman as he has upped his game to a large extent in all of those areas that we spoke of like holding-up play with back to goal, taking defenders out wide with runs, drop deep to allow others into space and so on. While many fans are expecting United’s midfield to improve drastically, the player who will benefit the most out of de Beek’s transfer might just be Martial.

While we had a clear overview of de Beek’s strengths are, let us have a look at the things he may not be able to excel in:

Not a ball-carrier

Taking on opponents in ground-duels from deeper areas in midfield isn’t among the best of de Beek’s abilities

van de Beek is definitely not the one you want to hand over the responsibility of carrying the ball from deep in midfield into advances areas in the final-third. The Dutchman is indeed technically strong when on-the-ball but dribbling past 3–4 opponents by himself and playing a killer through ball might be an unrealistic expectation of him. In fact, de Beek averages less 1 dribble per game in any given season throughout his career. It is ideal to have quality midfielders in the middle-third to allow de Beek to operate in the advanced areas doing what he does best.

Not a defensive midfielder

Figuring out the best midfield trio with Bruno and Pogba already cementing their places in the XI is going to be a challenge. However de Beek needs to play as the further-most of the trio

This might be obvious by now, van de Beek isn’t the best fit for a double pivot in a 4–2–3–1 or to play as the single pivot in a 4–3–3. Do not mistake this for ball-winning. Yes, de Beek is good at tracking back from advanced areas and putting in tackles in the defensive-third. Over the last 3 seasons, the Dutchman has averaged over 2 tackles per game and he is also effective at counter-pressing. But there is a vast difference between ball-winning and defending. Tackling and winning the ball back is only the tip of the defending iceberg. Especially for someone playing as part of the double-pivot, game-reading, patience, covering dangerous spaces and shielding the back-four are all absolutely pivotal.

Given de Beek’s technique, intelligence and understanding of the game, he may do a decent job of playing as one among the two-pivots but moving him away from the goal might not just be the smartest thing to do. The closer he is to the goal, the more effective he becomes. So although he may give you a couple of 7/10 games as a DM, it is not something to pursue in the long run.

So overall have Manchester United been smart in bringing van de Beek to Old Trafford? I would say yes but Ole just needs to ensure that there is a certain way of deploying the Dutchman in order to get the best out of him. There are already well-established stars in the United midfield and it is not going to be easy to compete with them in the highest level week in and week out. But if done right, van de Beek would undoubtedly be worth every penny or may be he could even turn out to be one of their best transfers in recent times!

What does a team need to win a football game? 1–0! How does the team do it? Well you can find out right here in, what will be soon, a library of tactics.

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