Why is Donny Van De Beek being benched?

October 26, 2020, Manchester United vs Chelsea heading towards a dull draw & in the final minutes of the match, the camera pans out towards Donny Van De Beek sitting in the stands clueless & wondering if he will ever start playing games for United.

While the game ends in a draw, the focus of all pundits who have vouched to up the TRPs for the channels, is Ole’s strategy. Is he right to bench Van De Beek & why doesn’t he trust him yet to start playing consistently for United.

Patrice Evra (I love the guy), while talking on Sky Sports commented, “We’re talking about Van de Beek, nothing against the kid, but why have we bought him? He’s watching the game from the stand every game,”. While I respect Evra, I don’t agree with him on this. Simply because, Ole got it right in term of the tactics with the available players, shielding the leaky defense with a double pivot & attacking through the middle through Bruno, Mata & Rashford.

However, with Van De Beek cooling his heels in the stands, the focus of attention quickly shifted from the draw to another talking point, him!

Slow Start for Donny – Man United pulled off a coup when they signed Donny Van De Beek this summer from Ajax for £35.7m. He was looked at by Real Madrid as well & may have gone to Madrid, albeit the pandemic. He was strongly recommended by ex-United players Van Der Sar as well as Daley Blind.

With rave reviews coming from Ajax, most fans & pundits have been very eager to see him play & start games for United. Fair, he’s a quality player but he needs to be given time to bed in & acclimatize himself with the physical nature of the Premier League. Many top players have struggled in the past (read: Di Maria) coming in hot form, from another league, but then found it difficult to settle down. That’s what Ole is trying to do with Van De Beek, he’s allowing the player to settle in, bringing him off the bench, giving him minutes & increasing his confidence to deal with games & expectations. Bear in mind, he’s not played a competitive game since March & his match fitness as well as syncing with the players around him will take time.

Lets roll back in time to another United player who found it difficult to settle in quickly, a certain lanky keeper called David De Gea. He was brought in 2011 to replace Van Der Sar. But it wasn’t smooth sailing at first. The Spaniard endured a torrid start to life at Old Trafford after being signed for £18.3m in 2011 from Atletico Madrid. He made some crucial mistakes early on, while many questioned his physique and whether he was ready for the Premier League. There were even calls for De Gea to be dropped in favor of then second-choice keeper Anders Lindegaard at one point.

However, over the next few seasons he would develop into the finest shot-stopper in the Premier League, being named in the PFA Team of the Year on five occasions, including four consecutively between 2014 and 2018.

One defining moment – as picked out by De Gea himself – changed everything. After pulling off an incredible save to deny Juan Mata’s free-kick in a 3-3 draw against Chelsea that same season, United’s goalkeeper slowly established himself among the Premier League’s best. “It might have been the defining moment of my United career,” he recalled. “From there, it got better and better.”

Similarly Van De Beek will have his chances to prove his mettle at United as claimed by Ole in his latest interview yesterday. “Donny’s fit enough but of course it’s competition for places, it’s giving him time to settle in and adjust to his new teammates, it’s a new league,” Solskjaer said. 

“He’s an absolutely top footballer and top personality, so humble and hard-working but also he’s of course eager to play more.  

“You’ll see him throughout the season, it’s going to be a long, long season and you’ll see him. He’s impressed me.”

So why did United buy Van De Beek: Van De Beek was a core part of an Ajax team that beat Juventus in Champions League Quarters, bringing the spotlight on an underdog team, studded with young & raw diamonds, produced in Ajax’s mines.

Van De Beek’s importance was highlighted by Mauricio Pochettino ahead of their Champions League semi final showdown with the Eredivisie side, the Argentinian tactician raved about Van de Beek’s subtle genius.

“Van de Beek. Nobody talks much about him,” Pochettino was quoted as saying by Spanish publication El País. “But he has a dynamic in the game, he gets behind Tadić, he arrives, he works, he scores goals. “Logically, I love De Jong and De Ligt. But the example of the operation of this Ajax side is Van De Beek. I like very much. They have a young player, from the academy, in each line, that shows what the team is.”

As Pochettino alluded to, there is a rare intelligence to Van De Beek’s style. His ability to drift between the lines of the opposition, linking midfield and attack and finding dangerous pockets of space in the final third, is a difficult skill to coach, something the best midfielders have consistently done over the years.

The Dutch international appears to have a preternatural spatial awareness and moves with the stealth of a special forces operative sneaking behind enemy lines, with only one thought in mind, to hurt the opposition.

A fine technician, he passes cleanly and crisply over short distances and has the ability and wherewithal to switch play with raking cross-field balls when the situation calls.

But even when he doesn’t have the ball, Van de Beek, with his forward movement and space-seeking quality, constantly occupies the attention of the opposition; the gravity of his intelligent motion draws defenders and conjures openings for team-mates.

Who can Van De Beek potentially replace at United – With the qualities that Van De Beek has, he can replace either of Bruno or Pogba in the starting 11. He can start off attacks from the deep as well as intercept passes. His heatmap for the 2018-19 season portrays these traits.

Heatmap for season 18-19 in Eredivise

However, in 2019-20 season he was deployed more on the right cutting in & creating space for himself. He also played defensively when the situation demanded.

Heatmap for season 19/20 in Eredivise

Below is a comparison of Van De Beek’s (VDB) last 2 seasons at Ajax, which will provide us a bird’s eye view of his rising abilities:

All stats for Eredivise only2018-192019-20
Total played3423
Goals per game0.30.3
Shots per game1.11.3
Big Chances created7.06.0
Key Passes1.21.8
Accurate Passes per game79%82%
Accurate Passes own half88%91%
Accurate Passes opposition half75%77%
Accurate chip passes59%60%
Accurate Long Balls51%57%
Interceptions per game0.80.7
Tackles per game1.52.0
Possession won0.40.9
Dribbled past per game0.50.6
Clearances per game0.60.5
Error led to shot00
Error led to goal00
Other Stats
Total duels won53%57%
Ground duels won53%58%
Aerial duels won51%54%
Possession lost8.110.5
Yellow Card13
Red Card00
A comparison between VDB’s stats of the last 2 years

The stats for the last season may not look great since the Eredivise season, like other leagues was also curtailed due to COVID pandemic & was declared void.

However, as one can notice that Van De Beek’s overall numbers in the last season grew in comparison to the 2018/19 season. He grew as a player, while the number of goals/assists may not portray that. Van De Beek is a player who thrives across the pitch & that’s what one saw across last season, with his top notch passing & defending as well, he’s a complete player. But he’s still got to develop.

Ole has faith in him & with time he certainly can replace Bruno or Pogba, when Ole decides to rest either of them. Van De Beek with his quality, can certainly do wonders in terms of giving United a dimension, they never had till now. Ole himself has confessed to this & I am sure his turn will come sooner rather than later.

Conclusion – The reason United bought Van De Beek was to add to our bench strength, for which Ole was called out on, by a lot of fans & pundits, last season, post restart, more so. As games came thick & fast, Ole was criticized for not subbing off players. He’d virtually play the same 11, almost every 3-4 days, without getting any bench players on the pitch as replacements. The good part to this was, Ole did get to top 4 but the team lost steam in the Europa League & lost out in semis.

It was then, that everyone agreed that United needs to add quality players to its bench, so that Ole can maintain the same quality, even if he substitutes players.

Man United bought Van De Beek to provide cover in midfield, to add creativity, a spark, a dimension, a quality which the team never possessed. However, integrating players is a slow process, not every player is Bruno Fernandes, who can acclimatize quickly. Van De Beek is young & has come from a league that isn’t as demanding as the Premier League. Therefore, Ole is 100% accurate in his judgement to integrate Van De Beek slowly. Surely the kid will shine through, give him time, his time will come!

What do you think, is Ole right in his approach, leave your comments below.

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