It was the admirable optimism of Donny van de Beek, liking the post on Ajax’s Instagram page confirming that Erik ten Hag would trade the tranquility of the River Amster for the rougher waters of the River Irwell.
The last two Dutch signings from Manchester United lasted 18 months before securing transfers and Memphis Depay was far more effective than Van de Beek. At Everton, Van de Beek went almost two months without playing.
Van de Beek is recovering from a thigh injury and Everton medical staff may also want to check his intestines to see if he has the stomach for a relegation drop. Van de Beek was pictured in training at Finch Farm this week but Frank Lampard’s first acts as Everton manager to sign Van de Beek and Dele Alli were strange.
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As close as Van de Beek has been to Ten Hag, his two seasons in English football are more relevant than passing stats against Go Ahead Eagles or a freak knockout in the Champions League three years ago. If United had an authoritarian and progressive manager on the spotVan de Beek would have a reserved seat in the departure lounge this summer.
Ten Hag’s appointment pardoned Van de Beek, for now. It was unfortunately mishandled by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, a fallback target to the backup option (James Maddison) when Jack Grealish proved too stiff, and Van de Beek’s former agent was so oblivious he no longer represents it. Van de Beek rarely excelled when he started and his mentality is so questionable that he attempted to join Everton on a season-long loan in August.
Davy Klaassen, re-signed by Ten Hag to replace Van de Beek at Ajax, couldn’t hack him at Everton either. United are understandably wary of signing Eredivisie-based players, stung by the unsuitable £26.3m Depay and £40m investment in Van de Beek.
Van de Beek was No. 10 for this captivating Ajax side in 2018-19 and, with a complex playmaker behind a centre-forward against Brentford, United mastered the controlling football that Ralf Rangnick craved. Cristiano Ronaldo enjoyed starting with Juan Mata so much that he skipped his signing celebration to kiss Mata for what ended up being a disallowed goal.
Mata immediately won over Van de Beek. “He’s a very smart player,” Mata said after Van de Beek’s second start to 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 to play one-two, pass and move, and the goal was like that. ” That goal came via a Van de Beek kick to Mata.
Van de Beek’s style is more aligned with Mata than United’s imperfect 10 Bruno Fernandes, relocated on the left against Brentford. Fernandes and Van de Beek once started together in the league – in a diamond formation at Southampton – and only in the group games against Istanbul Basaksehir Van de Beek lined up in a midfield axis behind Fernandes .
United can’t go a year without an incongruous contract and Fernandes is this year’s recipient. Fernandes’ form has been pitiful and the announcement was made by an interim manager, with Ten Hag yet to be named.
The extension only added a year to the contract’s expiration date, but the gesture was significant. United have saved Fernandes’ role ahead of a season where he could inherit the number eight shirt regardless of Ten Hag’s intentions.
Although the Brentford game looked like a testimonial, Thomas Frank’s side were intense and adventurous enough to earn United the kudos in their 3-0 victory. The key to this was a #10 fluid which modus operandi is not a success.
United haven’t had a sustained run with Fernandes out of the side to conclude if he’s been more of a hindrance than a help. The challenge for Fernandes entering a season that Solskjaer had intended to switch to a 4-3-3 formation was mastering a controlling style and that was beyond him.
Two key strengths that City and Liverpool have that United don’t are flexible forwards and ball-loving midfielders. Fernandes has suffered from United’s identity crisis while Kevin de Bruyne’s role is completely aligned with Pep Guardiola’s style.
Fernandes’ risk-taking was evident with Sporting Lisbon and Portugal before United relented and signed him five months after reporting their irritation over Fernandes’ speculation. United took a punt on a player who takes punts.
The end justified the means with turnstiles locked but with the crowds returning and expectations heightened, all Fernandes raised was his salary. He has started 12 more league games than De Bruyne this season so a definitive comparison is inconclusive, but Fernandes’ passing accuracy is only 0.4% better than De Bruyne.
Fernandes can’t hide behind the deceptive ‘goal contributions’, the stat-filling guff that has undoubtedly driven his advisers’ negotiations. Rangnick recommended United sign two ‘modern strikers’, that is. goalscoring attackers who operate freely. It’s just as well that Fernandes ended a two-month goalscoring drought on Monday night from the left.
This is where Van de Beek started under Solskjaer.