Manchester United are set to make their first summer signing, as Donny van de Beek is set to join from Ajax. A number of media outlets, including the Mirror, report that a deal has been agreed and the Dutchman has agreed a five-year contract. The reported fee is in the region of £40 million.
This is a switch of approach from Manchester United, as the rumours in recent months suggested they were looking to strengthen their attack. There has been a long protracted saga involving Jadon Sancho and there is still a lack of clarity about where the Englishman will be playing next season. There has also been speculation that the club wanted to sign a right-sided centre back to partner Harry Maguire.
Few expected a major signing to be made in central midfield. If they were to bring in a central midfielder, a long term replacement for Nemanja Matic should have been the priority.
12 months ago, this move would have made a lot of sense. Bruno Fernandes was still a Sporting player, while the long term future of Paul Pogba seemed to lie away from Old Trafford. However, post lockdown, the pair have starred in the same Manchester United team. It is difficult to see how Ole Gunnar Solskjaer can fit Donny van de Beek in the same starting eleven as Pogba and Fernandes.
Van de Beek will provide an improvement to options available to Solskjaer, but it is a lot of money to spend on a player that won’t be guaranteed to start.
As a player, the Dutchman has a lot of the qualities that you would expect from an Ajax academy graduate. He is very intelligent and operates smartly between the lines. Van de Beek can play short forward passes to create opportunities for team-mates and longer passes to open a game up.
The 23-year-old has an impressive work rate and can cover a lot of ground. Although there will be concerns about his physicality, he should be able to adapt to the Premier League. In last season’s Champions League, he did well against Chelsea and that will encourage Manchester United fans. He is best as a number ten or as a box-to-box midfielder, but he can play as a deeper playmaker.
Last season, he was either scored or created a goal every 147.75 minutes across the Eredivisie and the Champions League. He is a player that is best when he is permitted to play in the opposition’s half of the pitch, as shown by his goal-scoring record. Van de Beek has scored 28 league goals across the last three seasons. In the Netherlands, there have been comparisons made to former Ajax captain Davy Klaassen, but much greater things are expected from the 23-year-old.
Before the Dutch season was ended prematurely, van de Beek averaged 1.9 shots, 1.8 key passes and 1 dribble per game. The majority of his game time came as a box-to-box midfielder, but he was used both deeper and more advanced.
It might be that he is asked to play as a holding midfielder to force him into the Manchester United team. In the Eredivisie, he was capable of winning the ball back, with an average of 2.7 ball recoveries per game. This was higher in the Champions League, with 4.2 ball recoveries per game. Solskjaer will look at these numbers and believe that he can be used in a deeper role. However, that would be limiting a player that does his best work in the opposition half.
There is no doubt that van de Beek is an excellent midfielder that can thrive in a number of roles. However, his best two positions, as a number eight or ten, are already taken in the Manchester United team. There isn’t a clear route for the Dutchman to regular starts. Due to the number of games, there will be opportunities for him, but it is a big fee for a player not locked in to start.
It is difficult to be enthused by this signing at the moment, as there are more pressing needs for Manchester United. If the club manage to sign a centre back and a wide attacker, this may be looked back on as a good piece of business by the club.
However, at this point, van de Beek doesn’t improve the team. This money could have been better spent elsewhere.