Aston Villa’s bettering of Manchester United today was personified by the disconnected and overrun midfield. A key cog in this display was Donny van de Beek.
With Bruno Fernandes being suspended, Van de Beek was awarded the opportunity to maintain his place in the starting lineup for consecutive games. Fernandes’ absence was felt as his replacement lay on the periphery of the entire match – as was the case against Real Sociedad three days ago.
The striking thing is, coming into three seasons donning the Red shirt, Van de Beek has rarely not been an anonymous figure in United’s team.
People may gesture to glimpses – perhaps against Everton in the FA Cup, or against Crystal Palace shortly after he signed – but these glimpses do not justify calling the Dutch midfielder anything other than deadwood.
People may gesture to the fact he has not been “given a run of games.” 56 appearances is a more than sufficient opportunity to make a case for yourself to be a starter, or at the very least, to show some sort of worth.
Van de Beek has simply failed to do either, with Ole Gunnar Solskjær, Ralf Rangnick, and Erik ten Hag all deeming his contribution too inadequate for him to become a regular starter or perhaps even a valued squad member.
The over-reliance on Bruno Fernandes has been a symbol of Van de Beek’s lack of offering in both training and matches. He has not even been entrusted with the role of understudy due to Fernandes playing every game.
With the three managers’ faith in Fernandes’ ability, contribution, and effectiveness, Van de Beek has indeed rarely featured in United’s lineup. But he has appeared 56 times – there is no running away from that. 56 chances; Alejandro Garnacho needed one for him to prove himself as United-quality.
Erik ten Hag is already having an impact on United’s innerworkings. Aside from his integral role in last summer’s recruitment strategy with John Murtough and Richard Arnold driving their pursuits parallel to Ten Hag’s shortlist, the new manager is said to have demanded a more ruthless approach to contract extensions. With such desire to act unsparingly in their attempt to build a Premier League title-contending squad, Van de Beek may be the first real opportunity to lay down a new marker.
United are, however, not overwhelmed with midfield options (embodied through Van de Beek’s presence in the team, ironically) and such immediate hastiness may backfire.
Fred and Scott McTominay can now (finally) be viewed as role players: when the energy is low, bring on Fred, if the opponent is dominating the game physically, bring on McTominay. Maybe having a more technical role player on the sideline as well isn’t such a bad thing.
The problem with Van de Beek: it is a real struggle to identify this role. To identify what he can offer. To identify his talents at Old Trafford. And he has had 56 opportunities to present them.
Can Erik ten Hag be the man to reveal the answers to these secrets? Van de Beek’s Ajax ally should be the best candidate to do so. It was under Ten Hag’s tutelage that the midfielder performed so brightly he inspired United to stump up an initial €40 million. A season to reconfigure and realign himself with Ten Hag’s philosophies should be allowed.
But this is if United do not, in fact, want to act ruthlessly.
Even when a player was performing resoundingly better than Van de Beek has for United, Sir Alex Ferguson would sanction their sale simply if it wasn’t quite the appropriate fit (Juan Sebastián Verón springs to mind). On the blue side of Manchester, Pep Guardiola and Txiki Berigistain have been afforded the ability to act with a real cut-throat viewpoint of the transfer market.
Such a cut-throat and ruthless nature in all aspects of management is intrinsic to the pursuit of trophies. Moreover, it is not as though Ten Hag has not acted in this manner himself.
David Neres performed extremely profitably under Ten Hag’s leadership at Ajax. But, the winger started to show a lack of dedication to his craft and his performances faltered. In combination with injury spells, Ten Hag signed Mohamed Dahamy and Steven Berghuis as a result of Neres’ slow fall from grace.
He is not a man to show compassion when a lacklustre squad member stands in his way to glory.
And although United aren’t blessed with midfield options, there are more pressing holes in the squad. There is an urgent requirement for a reinforcement up top. Van de Beek could be an option to immediately thicken up funds for a centre forward this winter.
John Murtough has made it known that United do not intend to spend in January. However, considering the cry for a new striker – highlighted by Harry Maguire’s cameo against Sociedad as a makeshift target man – the director of football may advise Richard Arnold and the Glazers to juggle the finances. The sale of Van de Beek – for even half of the purchase price – would present a clear Glazernomic opening for the Club to sign a budget striker; and there are some good options for under €20 million.
It is time for Ten Hag and the hierarchy to seriously consider selling Van de Beek at any price, especially since he will not be included in the World Cup shop window.
Ruthlessness must prevail if United are to build a squad capable of winning trophies on all fronts.