Donny van de Beek’s first few months at Manchester United appeared to be another sign of the club’s doomed recruitment strategy.
After weeks of public and prolonged talks with Borussia Dortmund over Jadon Sancho, United went and bought Van de Beek for £40million from Ajax and added another player to a midfield that was already well stocked, then couldn’t fit him in.
Fast forward to just before Tuesday night’s routine Champions League win over Istanbul Basaksehir and Van de Beek’s role in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s squad had yet to be defined.
Donny van de Beek was impressive in Manchester United’s win over Istanbul Basaksehir
The Dutchman, usually played as a No 10, starred in a deeper midfield pairing alongside Fred
The Dutchman had played just 384 minutes of first-team football for United, scoring once and laying on one assist as Solskjaer found it difficult to squeeze him in instead of Paul Pogba, Bruno Fernandes, Fred, Scott McTominay or Nemanja Matic.
But his performance against the Turkish side, coming into the team in the absence of Pogba, was exceptional and has given Solskjaer a selection headache ahead of this Sunday’s Premier League trip to Southampton.
On just his fifth start in a United shirt, Van de Beek lined up in a defensive midfield pairing with Fred.
He has previously come on and played in the No 10 role, usually occupied by Fernandes, and he was always unlikely to dislodge the Portuguese talisman if that was to be his position.
But playing slightly deeper allows Van de Beek to influence United’s build-up play more and his stamina and willingness to do the dirty work means he slotted in effortlessly in front of the back four.
During Ajax’s magnificent run to the Champions League semi-finals in 2018-19, Van de Beek played in a No 10 role just behind Dusan Tadic.
It gives Ole Gunnar Solskjaer a selection headache ahead of Sunday’s trip to Southampton
His ability to link play was on full show on Tuesday night, taking 73 touches and playing 64 passes with an accuracy rating of 87.5 per cent. Two of those passes were also key, meaning they led to a shot at goal from a team-mate.
Van de Beek’s composure on the ball made him the perfect complement to Fred, who made five tackles and one interception throughout the evening.
After an uninspired performance from Matic and Fred in Saturday’s nervy win over West Brom, it was refreshing to see Van de Beek’s forward-thinking play. He was progressive without being risky and secure on the ball without fear of having to play backwards.
It remains to be seen how this performance will affect Pogba’s chances of coming straight back into the team, given the Frenchman has struggled for form so far this season.
Based on Tuesday night’s display it is crazy to think Van de Beek has not yet completed 90 minutes in the Premier League. But where does this leave Pogba?
Still nursing an ankle issue that also kept him out of the win over West Brom, Pogba has not been at his best yet this season. He has completed 90 minutes just twice and is yet to score or provide an assist in the Premier League.
Van de Beek was comfortable on the ball, pressed high up the pitch and was solid defensively
Solskjaer needs his midfield pairing to provide a solid base in front of the defence and link play. Pogba has struggled to do both of late and it is hard to remember the last game in which the Frenchman was dominant.
Former United midfielder Owen Hargreaves was clearly taken aback by Van de Beek’s performance, claiming the 23-year-old’s showing was ‘close to perfect’ while fellow pundit Rio Ferdinand was also impressed.
‘Van de Beek is so unselfish that he can just fit in,’ said Hargreaves. ‘I think he’s played himself into the starting line-up.’
Ferdinand added: ‘I was really was pleased with him. We’ve been impatient ourselves but Ole has shown why he has been thought of so highly.
‘He’s the one player than can play one-touch, two-touch and keep it simple. He sacrifices parts of his game to help other people and you need that in great times.
‘He’s the one player that will make other players play well.’
It remains to be seen where this breakthrough leaves Paul Pogba in United’s engine room
But perhaps the most noteworthy praise for Solskjaer to take on board came from Paul Scholes, who thinks the Dutchman has to be played in the deeper role moving forward.
‘Some of the one-touch stuff was brilliant,’ said the ex-United midfielder.
‘He had the awareness around him to find (Edinson) Cavani and find some good balls to Marcus (Rashford).
‘What we saw tonight was his best position. I think he’s good enough at the defensive position. He will be willing to try to do that. But it won’t be the defensive quality he brings, he will be bringing stuff going forward.’
Solskjaer has deployed Fred and McTominay in recent away games at Everton and Newcastle. Will he go back to his tried and trusted pairing or give Van de Beek the chance to build on his performance at St Mary’s?
‘I play everywhere on the midfield,’ he said on Tuesday night. ‘It doesn’t matter so much, but I think one of my strengths is to come in the box and score goals, making assists.’
Van de Beek may not be bothered which midfield job he’s given but for the sake of United’s season, a deeper role appears to be the way forward.