Juan Mata might have made Manchester United’s mind up on Donny van de Beek’s role under Erik ten Hag – Samuel Luckhurst


That was admirable optimism of Donny van de Beek, liking the post on Ajax’s Instagram page confirming Erik ten Hag would be swapping the tranquility of the River Amster for the choppier waters of the River Irwell.

Manchester United’s last two Dutch signings lasted 18 months before they secured transfers and Memphis Depay was much more effective than Van de Beek. At Everton, Van de Beek has gone nearly two months without playing.

Van de Beek is recovering from a thigh injury and the Everton medical staff may also want to check his intestines to see if he has the stomach for a relegation scrap. Van de Beek was pictured in training at Finch Farm this week yet Frank Lampard’s first acts as Everton manager to sign Van de Beek and Dele Alli were odd.

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However close Van de Beek was with Ten Hag, his two seasons in English football are more relevant than passing statistics against Go Ahead Eagles or an anomalous Champions League knockout run three years ago. If United had an authoritative and progressive manager on-siteVan de Beek would have a seat reserved in the departures’ lounge this summer.

Ten Hag’s appointment has reprieved Van de Beek, for now. He was woefully mismanaged by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, a fall-back target to the back-up option (James Maddison) when Jack Grealish proved too steep, and Van de Beek’s former agent was so oblivious he no longer represented him. Van de Beek seldom excelled when he did start and his mentality is so questionable he attempted to join Everton on a season-long loan in August.

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Davy Klaassen, re-signed by Ten Hag to replace Van de Beek at Ajax, could not hack it at Everton, either. United are understandably wary of signing Eredivisie-based players, stung by the £26.3million misfit Depay and the £40m investment in Van de Beek.

Van de Beek was the 10 in that captivating Ajax side of 2018-19 and, with an intricate playmaker behind a center forward against Brentford, United mastered the controlling football Ralf Rangnick has craved. Cristiano Ronaldo relished starting with Juan Mata so much he skipped his signature celebration to embrace Mata for what was eventually a disallowed goal.

Mata took an immediate shine to Van de Beek. “He’s a very clever player,” Mata said after Van de Beek’s second start at Brighton in the League Cup. “I love playing with him because he finds pockets, spaces. He understands football in a way that I like, which is playing one -twos, passing and moving, and the goal was like that.” Said goal came via Van de Beek’s flick through to Mata.

Van de Beek’s style is more aligned with Mata than United’s imperfect 10, Bruno Fernandes, relocated to the left against Brentford. Fernandes and Van de Beek started once together in the league – in a diamond formation at Southampton – and it was only in the group games against Istanbul Basaksehir Van de Beek lined up in a midfield axis behind Fernandes.

Van de Beek and Fernandes have started six times together
Van de Beek and Fernandes have started six times together

United cannot go a year without an incongruous contract and Fernandes is this year’s recipient. Fernandes’s form has been pitiful and the announcement came under an interim manager, with Ten Hag still not appointed.

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The extension only added a year to the contract’s expiration date but the gesture was significant. United safeguarded Fernandes’s role ahead of a season he could inherit the number eight shirt with little consideration for Ten Hag’s intentions.

Though the Brentford fixture had the air of a testimonial, Thomas Frank’s side were intense and adventurous enough for United to earn the kudos in their 3-0 win. Key to that was a fluid No.10 whose modus operandi is not hit-and-hope.

United have not had a sustained run with Fernandes out of the side to conclude whether he has been more of a hindrance than a help. The challenge for Fernandes entering a season Solskjaer intended to transition to a 4-3-3 formation was to master a controlling style and it has been beyond him.

Two decisive assets City and Liverpool have and United don’t are flexible forwards and ball-treasuring midfielders. Fernandes has suffered amid United’s identity crisis whereas Kevin de Bruyne’s function is completely aligned with Pep Guardiola’s style.

Fernandes missed a vital penalty at Arsenal
Fernandes missed a vital penalty at Arsenal

Fernandes’ risk-taking was apparent with Sporting Lisbon and Portugal before United relented and signed him five months after briefing their irritation at the Fernandes speculation. United took a punt on a player who takes punts.

The ends justified the means with turnstiles locked yet with the return of crowds and expectations raised, all Fernandes has raised has been his salary. He has started 12 more league games than De Bruyne this season, so a definitive comparison is inconclusive but Fernandes’s passing accuracy is only 0.4% better than De Bruyne’s.

Fernandes cannot hide behind the misleading ‘goal contributions’, stats-padding guff that doubtless drove his advisers’ negotiations. Rangnick has recommended United recruit two ‘modern strikers’, ie. goalscoring forwards who operate freely. It is just as well Fernandes ended a two-month goal drought on Monday night from the left.

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That is where Van de Beek started under Solskjaer.


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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