Football keeps me motivated in this work from home scenario. International breaks tend to be a liability but at the same time players get their chances to prove themselves before the Euro’s. The late-night fixtures have been a pain for the eyes due to time zone differences but one person enlightened me to wake up confidently the next day. The Dutch national team had been struggling to find the net in the first half and faced an early injury setback. Things didn’t look great. But after two minutes from the start of the second half, a left-sided inswinging cross from Wijndal which looked like landing in a no man’s land fell at the feet of a lynchpin by the name of Donny van de Beek who volleyed the ball home to equalise. Eventually, the dynamics started to change from that point. Fortunately, de Boer’s side managed to grind out a decent result after a bad start.
Coincidentally, five hours before the game I had an amazing chat with Mr. Geert Langendorff, a Dutch football expert and author, living in England, covering actively for various publications and radio stations in the Netherlands. The blueprint of discussion was around the same player who scored for a consecutive time for the Oranje after failing to find the net with his first ten attempts at goal as per OptaJohan. I was flattered by how the Ajax academy was structured to bring the best out of the assets that they produced. Many clubs have failed recently to bind their theoretical values with some identity. “Johan Cruyff started a revolution at Ajax that encouraged the team to work differently by nourishing the youth set-up, closing the door towards big money purchases into the first team, and a return to their core values. This had been working pretty decently for quite some time helping the likes of Frank de Boer winning the domestic title four times in a row. A return to the summit of European football, as Cruyff had envisioned, didn’t materialize. They changed tack, put the Cruyff roadmap aside, and started spending seriously by bringing in Dusan Tadic from Southampton and Daley Blind from Manchester United. This transition of culture coincided with the emergence of young blood like Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt, Donny van de Beek and Ziyech” said Geert praising Erik Ten Hag by describing him as a human calculator for the tactical versatility instilled into a young team that achieved the semi-final berth in 2018-19 UEFA Champions League.
Donny van de Beek caught my eye in the respective campaign scoring decisive goals against powerhouses in Europe which made me remember Roy Keane vs Juventus in 1999. Before breaking into the main team, Geert had watched him play alongside Abdelhak Nouri in the Future Cup, a tournament organized by Ajax. “He was one of the younger ones who didn’t get a starting berth. A skinny blonde kid skillful on the ball good at unlocking defenses with a pass. And I asked the person standing next to me about this kid and they said he was the future of Ajax. I was also told that Frank de Boer rated him as one of the top prospects coming out of the academy. Some of the players he was compared to by youth coaches weren’t too shabby either. He was said to be the closest thing to Dennis Bergkamp which obviously made me more curious about him. Others pointed out the striking similarities with Davy Klaassen, at the time possibly Ajax’s standout player and a Dutch international with seemingly a bright future ahead of him. Donny van de Beek had similar dynamism and energy to his now fellow teammate in the national team. As we all know Klaassen couldn’t live up to expectations in the Premier League, but at the time that was a compliment of note. Donny van de Beek, technically more gifted than his compatriot, also shows a likeness to Christian Eriksen, another player with similar traits to Donny’s. The Dane, known for his intricate play and the subtle art of picking out a pass, left Ajax at the same age and went on to do well for Spurs.”
After making the switch to the Premier League for the same team that he faced in the Europa League final with Ajax in 2017, things haven’t gone well in terms of starting for the team but showed what he could do well in the key moments of the game. The element that clicked the player’s mind to choose the current United project is something that seeks an answer. “ Covid-19 changed the big picture of Donny’s future. His management was forced to look elsewhere after the path to Real Madrid suddenly closed. The Spanish side had a deal in place. Bar a medical and his signature, his contract was set in stone. However, the pandemic forced the club to pull out. They couldn’t afford him anymore. United pounced quickly, helped by their strong relationship with CEO Edwin van der Sar and Director of Football Marc Overmars. The player swiftly chose the club for its history and the conversation on the phone he had with Solskjaer, which I do think was a bit of a red herring as it is the usual way for United to convince players to sign for them. If the deal had been delayed for a day or two, Tottenham or PSG would’ve hijacked the deal and I was also told that Jose Mourinho was a big fan of the player as well. It is an open secret he was seen as an alternative to Grealish, whom United has set their eyes on as we both know. Due to the price tag of 80 million pounds, they backed out. Donny might be their main summer buy, but he’ll have to wait to prove his value to the team.”
After a heavy defeat vs Tottenham and the mixed reactions from the Netherlands and from fans in Manchester, people have started questioning the role of the player in the current playing system.” If you look at the way he played in Ajax, in a similar 4-2-3-1 formation, he either played as a Number 10 or as a Number 8. So there is this immediate problem of players like Fernandes and Pogba occupying those positions. Those are clearly his best positions. I do understand why Solskjaer does not opt for him to play a role in double pivot yet as he needs to cover more ground defensively. I believe he has the required skills in his locker, as he played in a similar role successfully under Ten Hag at Ajax, but you can’t compare the Dutch Eredivisie to the Premier League.”
“It was my understanding that United wanted to sell some of their fringe players and bring in a more pacy center-half to ease the burden on the double pivot. This didn’t materialize as promised and hence forcing them to play two holding midfielders to act as a proper shield in front of the back four. Donny should use this unfortunate set of circumstances to bulk up a bit and learn the tactical requirements for this role. His tendency to learn the trade quickly will help him find his feet in the current pivot. In two or three months’ time, it will be difficult to keep him out of the starting lineup. His positioning and technique as a box to box remain underrated and are yet to be explored as well. So that’s something to look forward to.”
But when asked if the decision that Donny ended up making was right, he said that “ If Pogba and McTominay keep getting picked, I don’t think Donny will be able to get his spot easily. Tottenham would’ve been more favorable to him as Mourinho likes him and would’ve exploited his dynamism in the current lineup at Spurs. I don’t get the feeling Solskjaer is as enamored with Donny as Mourinho who quite likely would have created a role for him. ” But the reason to make that statement even stronger was the comparison with Ziyech at Chelsea. “Lampard allows Ziyech to focus on his strong points. Due to the presence of Reece James and N’Golo Kanté he doesn’t need to worry too much about tracking back. They also create space for him when Chelsea attack. With three assists in his last two games, he’s proving his worth. For Donny, it’s more complicated. He seems, and this may sound harsh, no more than an expensive understudy, not a coveted player. But he can definitely become a starter in that Number 8 position if Pogba leaves, which would make sense in the current financial climate. Even United needs to claw back some of their losses due to Covid-19. And Donny should definitely be able to overtake McTominay, by being the better and more versatile player.”
Patience will definitely be a very significant talking point in the coming months at the club. But Geert optimistically believes that Van de Beek knows his own qualities and what he can offer to the club. He has got an old school mentality, inherited from his parent club, and his football intelligence quotient, developed at the Ajax academy, should serve him well. United has been a shambles in the transfer market but the correct management of the player by the coaching staff and influence of former players like Carrick will definitely sharpen the edges in his game. European competitions will help him adapt more and grind out significant results in the key moments of the game. The tough times that he faced in his career with the heart attack of his best friend Nouri has not only pursued him to choose the No.34 shirt at United but also made him mentally strong as well. Hopefully, if the sensors do serve him well, Donny will continue to hold the legacy as one of the memorable Dutch players at United along with Van der Sar, Jaap Stam, and Ruud van Nistelrooy. Meanwhile, after the game against Spain, I woke up daydreaming the next day of a packed stadium shouting the chant ‘La la la la la, Donny van de Beek, Van de Beek, Doooooonnny van de Beek,…’ out loud from the Stretford End.