For the first time in a while, there is a genuine and understandable enthusiasm around Manchester United’s midfield options.
Bruno Fernandes settled exceptionally quickly following his January move from Sporting CP, Fred has established himself in the team and produced a string of positive performances, Scott McTominay continues to improve and speculation relating to Paul Pogba has gone quiet.
Now there is reportedly increasing confidence of being able to sign Ajax star Donny van de Beek, a key figure in the Dutch side’s march to the Champions League semi-finals last year.
The Netherlands international had been heavily linked with Real Madrid, with claims a deal had already been agreed between the club and player, but those reports have since cooled.
There’s little doubt Van de Beek would be a fine addition at Old Trafford, but would the fans’ ideal midfield trio comprising of Pogba, Fernandes and the 23-year-old be too unbalanced?
133 – Donny van de Beek, who turns 23 today, played 133 of the possible 141 matches for @AFCAjax in all competitions since the start of 2017-18, more than any other player. Present. pic.twitter.com/4ldssbEudf
— OptaJohan (@OptaJohan) April 18, 2020
More responsibility, greater productivity
One of Van de Beek’s biggest strengths is his well-rounded style of play, and it is especially relevant when looking at the roles he has played across the past two seasons.
Last term he was regularly deployed in an attack-minded position ahead of Frenkie de Jong, whereas in 2019-20 he was largely used in a deeper role, helping to fill the void left by his international colleague’s departure to Barcelona.
Therefore, if we accept Pogba and Fernandes would automatically fill the first two midfield spots at United, it is likely Van de Beek would be asked to play a deep-lying role if he was to move to Old Trafford.
This certainly did not negatively impact his influence for Ajax in 2019-20, however, even with respect to his attacking output.
Across all competitions, he averaged more touches of the ball (53.5 to 46.7) per game this season, while his touches in the opposition’s penalty area also increased from 5.9 to 6.9.
The fact Van de Beek saw more of the ball reflects in his higher passing frequency (up to 38.8 per match from 33.1), and the accuracy of that distribution was 81 per cent, having been at 79 last term.
Understandably he did not average as many shots per game (down from 2.1 to 1.9), but his chance creation increased to 1.8 from 1.6 in 2018-19.
While these were mostly slight changes, it does highlight a suitability for the position – the fact his attacking productivity generally increased, even from a deeper role, speaks volumes for his influence, particularly given Ajax were widely accepted to have been less impressive collectively this term.
The best option for a defensive role?
From a defensive perspective, there were not major changes to Van de Beek’s contributions in 2019-20. He still averaged five recoveries, one interception and two tackles per game, while his participation in duels (from 8.0 to 8.4) and duels won (from 4.2 to 4.4) were up slightly in all competitions.
But it is worth remembering Ajax were generally a dominant force in matches – they spent more time with the ball than without it, and Van de Beek’s influence was most felt when they were on the attack.
Fred and Nemanja Matic – who also enjoyed something of a resurgence before the season’s suspension – would likely be those most threatened by Van de Beek’s arrival.
But both can claim a better frequency of interceptions, with Matic averaging 1.2 per Premier League game and Fred 1.4, while they also complete more passes per match – 46 and 53, respectively.
And although Van de Beek’s all-action approach serves him well, Matic and Fred both out-do him with respect to average duels; the Serbian is involved in 10 per top-flight game, the Brazilian 12.
While neither boast Van de Beek’s effectiveness in attack, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could argue that is not their job if occupying a deep position.
Donny van de Beek = BIG GAME PLAYER
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) November 15, 2019
A replacement for Pogba?
While Van de Beek’s game was not hurt by operating in a deeper role this term, he is clearly at his most useful when in possession, and he has also been praised for his clinical nature in front of goal.
After all, in the Eredivisie this season his expected goals (xG) was 5.5 but he scored eight times. Similarly, in the Champions League, he got a pair of goals despite his xG being 1.3.
Were United to sign Van de Beek as a deep-lying midfielder whom the defensive burden was on, there is a strong chance the Premier League would not see the best of him. It would be bold to expect a similar attacking output from him in England’s top flight if he was also tasked with protecting the defence.
But if he was to be seen as a long-term replacement for Pogba, there is an equally arguable case that United’s overall midfield unit could improve with his box-to-box capabilities.
Pogba – who has missed the majority of the 2019-20 season through injury – averaged 1.3 tackles and 0.5 interceptions in his 35 Premier League games last term, which is fewer than Van de Beek. And while people might be correct to point out the World Cup winner is more known for his creativity than his work off the ball, Van de Beek’s average chance creation of 1.8 is also better than Pogba’s 1.6 in 2018-19.
Either way, it seems likely Van de Beek would be a solid acquisition if United were able to snatch him from the grasp of Madrid – but his well-rounded game could see him pigeonholed and his influence limited.
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