He may not be an exact fit, but that does not make him a bad signing…
Two days ago, Manchester United announced their first signing of the summer. Dutch midfielder Donny van de Beek joins the Red Devils from Ajax for an initial £35 million fee, not including add-ons. The 23 year old signed a five year deal with United with an option for sixth year.
This is a signing that I was unsure about, and some of the reasoning was echoed by Vikram in his blog post recently. However, the more I think about it, the more I believe this is a sound signing, and many of the issues with the deal have very little to do with van de Beek himself or this deal in isolation.
There is quite a bit to discuss regarding this deal, the fit, the structure of United’s midfield, and where United’s transfer priorities should lie, but let us ignore all of that for just one second and talk about the first main point about this signing:
Donny van de Beek is a very good player.
For three years, van de Beek brought a combination of youthful aggression, dynamism, and technical brilliance into an excellent Ajax team, bringing a great blend of goalscoring and assisting from midfield into that team, alongside a bulldog-like mentality. He was a key player in the Ajax team that won an Eredivisie title and made the final of the Europa League and semifinals of the Champions League, quite possibly being the main unsung hero of that team. In a team full of incredible, budding world-class talent, van de Beek seemed to miss some of the acclaim that Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt, Hakim Ziyech, and others received. This might be most exemplified by his performance in their 4-1 win over Real Madrid, where he was arguably the best player on the pitch outside of Man of the Match Dušan Tadić despite not really receiving much in the way of deserved recognition from that match. He ran the show from midfield and carried the team forward into attack, finding Ziyech, Tadić, and David Neres in space in order to threaten a stagnant Real Madrid defense. Van de Beek shone this season in midfield following de Jong’s departure, demonstrating a flexibility and tactical understanding that allows him to feature in any role in midfield, even as a defensive number six outside of his preferred attacking role. United are bringing in a technically brilliant, tactically flexible, intelligent, and dynamic midfielder who, at only 23 years old, has quite a bit of room to grow before he reaches his ceiling as a player.
But let us look at Vikram’s points specifically. The two points he brought up were in regards to van de Beek’s utilization in this United team and questioning how this signing fits into what United’s priorities should be in the transfer market. These two ideas are connected, but we will first look at how van de Beek fits into the team before looking at the grand scheme of United’s transfer market.
It is clear that United’s midfield still needs some work. Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba are clearly locks in the team, but Ole Gunnar Solskjær has seemed to want to fill that third midfield role by committee, utilizing one of Fred, Scott McTominay, or Nemanja Matić in a midfield three in his 4-2-3-1. With van de Beek coming into the team, will he be the third midfielder United are looking for? Well, maybe. While van de Beek has the ability to fit into any role in midfield, his key technical traits and desire to get forward makes him best suited to a box-to-box role, similar to Pogba. There were times where he played as the deepest midfielder in the Ajax 4-3-3, but he usually played in a role where he had the freedom to get forward, with someone like Frenkie de Jong, Daley Blind, or Lisandro Martínez playing in that defensive role. However, this does not mean that he cannot play in a defensive role for United, and Ole’s tactical set up makes it somewhat easier for van de Beek to play in this role. In Ole’s 4-2-3-1, the two midfielders playing behind the front four operate as a double pivot. This means that both midfielders sit in front of the back four when the team is defending, but when they are going forward, one of the two is able to join the attack, while the other stays back to shield the defense. The midfield is “pivoting” through those two players, one going forward to help carry the ball from defense to attack while the other stays back. In this case, Pogba and van de Beek operate as the double pivot. Both are very strong players going forward, and both are capable enough to cover the defensive needs of being in that role.
I will admit, however, it is not the most ideal pairing. Even in a double pivot, many teams utilize one player that is more of a playmaker and another that is more of a defensive-minded player, or they will use a deep-lying playmaker paired with a midfielder more prone to get forward in attack. This could be seen with Cesc Fàbregas and Nemanja Matić at Chelsea, Thiago Alcântara and Joshua Kimmich (or Leon Goretzka) at Bayern, and, a pairing that Vikram and Rynaldy will remember well, Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes at Man United. A pairing of Pogba and van de Beek is a bit weird in this sense because they are two similar players who will want to do the same things, neither fitting into this ideal pairing. Having that double pivot would be very effective for United against teams that sit deep in a low block, as they now have three midfielders able to pick out key passes and break down a defense, but they do risk being caught out on the counter if all three midfielders are forward. It definitely can work, but it will require very strong positional discipline from both players. Pogba has, at times, shown a lesser defensive work rate than would be ideal, and while van de Beek’s engine can make up for that, a double pivot of the two would likely need very good defensive discipline from both players to work. Both players would need to understand when they needed to stay back and would need to sacrifice for each other when both want to get forward. It is a partnership that definitely can work, and can work wonders, but I do admit there are issues with it that would stop it from working, and van de Beek may not have been the most ideal signing to fill that role. The aforementioned Thiago, as well as Arsenal-linked Atlético Madrid midfielder Thomas Partey, would have fit into that role perfectly, cost about the same or only marginally more than van de Beek, and likely would have been more logical signings for United in this role.
This does not make this a bad signing, as this move meets two crucial needs for United: it offers them depth in an important position and provides them options tactically and personnel-wise. One of United’s biggest weaknesses as a team last season was a lack of ability to rotate Pogba and Fernandes, forcing Fernandes especially to play nearly every minute from the time he made his move to Manchester until the end of the season. Solskjær also lacked a “Plan B”, and he seemingly had nowhere to turn when he needed to make an alteration to change the course of a match. While this is partially a reflection of Ole’s weakness in game management, it is hard to look at that United bench and see many players who can come on and impact a match. These two issues were exemplified in United’s arguably two biggest losses of the season: their FA Cup semifinal loss to Chelsea and Europa League semifinal loss to Sevilla. Against Chelsea, Ole heavily rotated the team, taking out Pogba and leaving Fernandes as the only creative outlet in the team. They struggled massively to create anything going forward, with Chelsea’s midfield game plan effectively able to stop Fernandes, knowing there was no other player United could use, apart from Pogba, that could have that level of creative impact. Against Sevilla, United struggled to create chances for most of the match, outside of a strong first 15-20 minutes of the second half. Ole did not have anyone to bring on to change the match, however, and he only made his first substitutions in the 87th minute. This is partially on Ole’s poor game management, but also it shows that he had no one to turn to when he needed someone to come in and make a difference. Van de Beek fills both voids. He is a player who offers more in that creative or box-to-box role than any player currently at United, able to be rotated into the team when Fernandes or Pogba need to be rested or get injured, or he can come on late in a match to be a spark of creativity. He also presents a tactical plan B, as this allows Ole to play with a midfield four if needed, likely deploying van de Beek as one of two box-to-box midfielders on either side of a diamond. In a situation where Ole feels that he needs another player in midfield to sure up the team or to overwhelm the opposition midfield, van de Beek is able to come in and fill that role very well. United now have viable options when things need to be changed.
But this is too much to pay for a squad player, right? Well, not really. A fee of £35 million definitely is not chump change, but in this market, that is not a bad fee for a player who will not immediately play but offers, at minimum, a great influence off the bench and a high future potential. He also acts as the eventual successor to Pogba, should the Frenchman decide to not extend his contract with the club. Especially when the reported fee for the player was in the £50-60 million range last summer, getting him for £35 million a year later is a great deal, possibly one of the best deals of this window, financially speaking.
Now for the final point that Vikram brought up: a player like van de Beek is not a priority for United in this market. In many ways, he is right. I would argue van de Beek offers that depth and “plan B” role that United do very much need, but I would not say a midfielder in his profile is something United were desperate to sign this window, especially when compared to their need for a center back, left back, and proper defensive midfielder. But, for the reasons I have stated, this is still a great move and makes sense for United football-wise and financially. The overall view of this move might end up being influenced by whatever else United do in this window. The club has seemingly turned a corner under Solskjær’s management, getting back into the Champions League and seeming to be only a few pieces away from potentially challenging the Liverpool-Manchester City duopoly on the league title. They are also seeing the moves that Chelsea and Arsenal are making, knowing they need to make upgrades in key positions to at least keep pace with their top four rivals. This window is absolutely crucial for United, even with the impact of COVID on the market. If they do not sign anyone else between now and October 5th, then van de Beek will always be prefaced as “that player United did not need”, which is massively unfair on him. This window will be the greatest referendum of Ed Woodward’s role in this football club. He did a very good job bringing a high rated youngster like van de Beek to the club for a financially reasonable fee, but his ability to bring in the players this United team desperately need will have a much bigger impact in their fortunes next season, especially with the moves that clubs around them in the table will be making. Van de Beek could work out as a United player or he could not, and while I have faith that he will be a great signing for United, I do feel that people’s reflections on this move will be too influenced by whatever else the club do in this crucial window, instead of solely focusing on the player and his performances.
I have more faith in this move for United. I believe this is a very good signing, possibly the best pound-for-pound signing in this window among Premier League teams. Even if he cannot be the crucial third midfielder in that United starting XI, he will still be a very good player that can grow into a starting role in the post-Pogba midfield. Concerns about his utilization in the team are unfounded, and while he is admittedly not a major priority for United in this window, that should not take away from how good of a deal this is financially and when looking to the future.
Don’t worry, Vikram. He will be fine.
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