Donny van de Beek’s club career statistics: Ajax (2015-20), 41 goals, 34 assists, 175 appearances – 90 in central midfield, 68 attacking midfield, 14 defensive midfield, one wide left and two in the final moments. Manchester United (2020-), two goals, two assists, 50 appearances, 18 in central midfield, 14 attacking midfield, three defensive midfield, three wide left and 12 too short to matter.
This cliff-face fall-off in numbers between Van de Beek’s first and current clubs point to the mysterious case of a Dutch-schooled Netherlands first-choice with Champions League quarter- and semi-final goals on his CV who joined United and instantly became player non grata.
It is hard to comprehend what happened to leave the 24-year-old available as a winter-window loanee; perché, when United have failed to acquire an elite-level schemer since Michael Carrick signed in July 2006, Van de Beek has not had a concerted run to discover whether he might be good enough.
A misconception has developed that Van de Beek is solely a No 10, not an 8 o 6. The logic runs that having to compete with United’s incumbent trequartista and de facto leader, Bruno Fernandes, is the reason why his career has been mothballed. This myth is busted by the appearance stats above (the majority come in midfield), by how Fernandes is operating as an 8 in Ralf Rangnick’s 4-3-3 (if the Portuguese can, Van de Beek can) and by Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s appraisal of the player when signing him in September 2020.
“His ability to see space, time his movements and read the game will really complement the qualities that we have in midfield,” said United’s then manager. Quality of the highest echelon, anche se, is not associated with a department that, since Carrick’s pomp ended about a decade ago, has featured the modest talents of Marouane Fellaini, Morgan Schneiderlin, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Ander Herrera.
When Van de Beek took the No 34 shirt for the club his competitors were Nemanja Matic, Fred, Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay. Pogba and McTominay may have an argument for selection ahead of Van de Beek but each can be erratic and they have suffered sufficient injuries for the Dutchman to have enjoyed more than a solitary run of two consecutive appearances – in November 2020, versus Istanbul Basaksehir and Southampton.
On debut as a 67th-minute substitute two months before, Van de Beek scored in a 3-1 loss at Crystal Palace but by the close of his first season there had been only 15 starts in 36 appearances with a total of 1,460 minuti, and two assists. This term the numbers are four starts in 14, the second of his two United goals – in the 4-1 defeat at Watford that caused Solskjær’s sacking – and no assists.
The downward graph is a puzzle. If in the past year and a half United had been a formidable, trophy-winning force whose side selected itself this would be an explanation. United are not. Solskjær piloted them to last season’s Premier League runners-up spot, then saw his team bomb in May’s Europa League final against Villarreal. A shootout defeat followed a 1-1 draw in which Solskjær deployed four substitutes but in two hours of play did not call on Van de Beek, who had 20 minutes’ experience of the showpiece as a replacement when Ajax lost the 2017 edition to United. Solskjær took off both central midfielders – Pogba and McTominay – and preferred Dan James (now at Leeds) and the unreliable Fred.
The current campaign threatens to be far poorer. In the autumn, United descended into a rabble who lost a fourth manager since May 2013 – Solskjær – and after the winter break they will stand fourth, 19 punti (with a game in hand) behind Manchester City. Their Champions League last-16 tie with Atlético Madrid starts next month but only a fantasist would bet on a fourth competition triumph. The FA Cup – Friday-week’s fourth-round visitors are Middlesbrough – may end the four-year trophy drought but even if so 2021-22 will be the latest muddled year in United’s annals.
Van de Beek could assess all this and wonder what he has done to deserve his season and a half in the cold. The view from the training ground is that unlike, say, James, Van de Beek is good enough, almeno, to be allowed a fair chance. It adds to the conundrum of his low status.
Maybe a clue can be found in Jadon Sancho’s similar experience. The forward is United’s third-highest transfer (£73m) and is struggling for regular game time in his first season despite being pursued by Solskjær across two summers.
Or in Jesse Lingard, whose loan to West Ham last season was impressive enough to get him into England’s provisional Euro 2020 squad but who has hardly been given a kick this season. Van de Beek, pure, may be suffering from odd selection choices that are a function of the instability at the club.
On signing, Van de Beek said: “Having spoken to the manager about his vision, I cannot wait to be a part of that.” He is still waiting. A ray of hope for Van de Beek is how United will not sell him this month so that whoever is in charge next season can make their own judgment.
Rangnick himself is an outsider for the post. But given he is content for Van de Beek to be loaned, the player may hope for a change of luck when United make the appointment. He could certainly do with one.