The peaks and troughs of Donny van de Beek’s season spiraled wildly last week. His old Ajax coach, Erik ten Hag, is gaining momentum ahead of his potential appointment by Manchester United, Van de Beek was down to start for Everton at West Ham, sustained an injury in the warm-up, Everton lost and then Ralf Rangnick shed light on United’s next intended recruitment reboot.
“We come back to DNA, speed, physicality, tempo, what do we need?” Rangnick rhetorically asked. “This team does not lack technical players, it can do with more physicality.
“It has to be a bit in the DNA of a player, to be honest. It is difficult to change, shall I say a technically great player into a physical, aggressive player, and we have a lot of people who are technical players. “
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Rangnick cited United’s lack of physicality behind their defeat to Atletico Madrid last month and the fortuitous draw with Leicester when Bruno Fernandes jumped out of a challenge with Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall for Kelechi Iheanacho’s goal. “They tackled us away twice within two seconds,” Rangnick frowned.
Van de Beek only started playing for Everton in February and has already committed seven fouls, averaging more than one per game. In his sole standout performance for United at Watford, he crunched into Ismaila Sarr, forcing him off.
That second-half, Van de Beek’s most complete outing for United, blended silk and steel. There was a goal and a defence-splitting pass Cristiano Ronaldo failed to convert at 2-1. Eager to impress on his first start under Rangnick, Van de Beek, who gained muscle mass in pre-season to disprove the theory he was lightweight, attempted a season-high four tackles.
Van de Beek’s fortunes seemed to be changing when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer drove into Carrington to film his exit interview the day after the Watford thrashing. Yet the Dutchman underwhelmed in his one start under Michael Carrick and Rangnick had little hesitancy in letting him leave on loan.
The dichotomy of Ten Hag’s familiarity with the player and Rangnick pressing the importance of physicality leaves Van de Beek in limbo. He could not be an automatic pick on the strength of performing for Ten Hag in games more than two years ago and he has done less than compatriot Memphis Depay in a United shirt.
Darren Fletcher is a dubious technical director but he has seen Van de Beek in training and could be an objective voice. Some teammates felt Van de Beek’s training performances merited more playing time but his mentality was weaker-exposed by his attempt to settle into the comfort zone of Everton in August. It is now uncomfortable at Goodison, with Everton 17th.
Rangnick is overstating United’s technical proficiency. Of the midfielders and forwards, Fernandes is a moments player, capable of creating something out of nothing innovatively, but incapable of controlling games. Paul Pogba has the aptitude but rarely the application. In a bloated squad, Fred is the truest representation of a technical player.
The Old Firm derby chewed up Amad, spat him back out and he has not started in the Scottish Premiership since. Anthony Martial was described as off the pace in the tranquility of La Liga on Sunday night, Victor Lindelof is vulnerable against battering rams and United’s most physical full-back, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, is a benchwarmer.
With United close to waving the white flag on Champions League qualification, Rangnick has started to look beyond this season. He highlighted how impressively Arsenal had recruited ahead of a campaign devoid of European football and has recommended United target hungry players seeking a progressive career move.
That approach is similar to United’s recruitment reboot of 2019 when they prioritized players enraptured by the prospect of playing for the club. United deliberately eschewed big names but quickly regressed, fleetingly considering Paulo Dybala to offset Romelu Lukaku’s departure. The next year, Edinson Cavani touched down on deadline day and last year Cristiano Ronaldo did.
As laudable as Solskjaer’s strategy was, it was unsuccessful and the emphasis on British players was misguided and idealistic. The approach under Rangnick’s guidance is bound to be more continental.
United’s pull in the market will plummet if they have Europa League or Conference League football to offer. They have to use that to their advantage – not pursuing lost causes, getting led down the garden path or providing a retirement home for another armchair striker.
A midfielder and forward are priorities, with a full-back under consideration as well a centre-back, with Eric Bailly and Phil Jones open to leaving. A center half with the profile Bailly arrived with in 2016 would be preferable, minus the brittleness.
Declan Rice, of interest to United and interested in United, has the potential to develop into a dominant box-to-box midfielder as Yaya Toure did when he joined Manchester City. Christopher Nkunku, a midfielder-cum-second-striker for RB Leipzig, would flesh out the spine.
Nkunku would pose a threat to Fernandes, never mind Van de Beek.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.