As soon as Everton’s January acquisition of Donny van de Beek was finalized, a lot of fans started trying to figure out what his best position is and how he’s going to fit into this Everton team. These conversations only got even more animated when new manager Frank Lampard went out and obtained Dele Alli from Tottenham as well, with both players usually playing the same position that the boss himself redefined at Chelsea during his playing days.
Unfortunately, in the last couple of years at Manchester United van de Beek has struggled to get game time to the extent that you can forgive fans for their lack of knowledge on the Dutch international. So, this week I spent some time watching the midfielder play in previous games and I decided to relay what I found, particularly because of how surprising it was. Could he be the answer to our defensive midfield problem?
As we all know, Allan is not really a defensive midfielder in the classic #6 mold. His best days have always been when deployed as a midfield destroyer that has the freedom to chase the ball and wreak havoc when not in possession, much like N’Golo Kante made famous. Old habits die hard, and the Brazilian often gets caught upfield even when playing the #6 role for the Toffees, especially since he’s lost a step or two with age.
Both Tom Davies and Mason Holgate have been used by Rafa Benitez in that central defensive midfielder position, but neither has been able to make it their own. And with Davies now not even listed in Everton’s 25-man Premier League squad for the rest of the season, this remains an area of weakness.
The game I watched was Ralf Rangnick’s second game in charge of Manchester United, a 1-1 draw with BSC Young Boys in the Champions League. Donny van de Beek played alongside Juan Mata in midfield but was deployed as the more defensive of the pair, being the player to receive the ball from the defenders and play through the lines into attack. Not only were his on-the-ball attributes needed, but he was also having to break up play, press opposition players and put himself about to win the ball back for the attackers. Time to take a little look at some of the statistics from the game.
Van de Beek definitely illustrated his significant ability in dispossessing the Young Boys attackers. Playing slightly deeper than normal, he was having to hunt players down and attempt to win the ball back. He finished the game with six tackles won. Every single one of these tackles was inside his own half and many of them were in the defensive third. When played in more advanced positions, he will press players high up the pitch so applying pressure isn’t exactly a foreign language to him, being an Ajax Amsterdam graduate. In deeper positions it’s more important as if you mistime tackles, allow a player to dribble past you or commit fouls it can be much more dangerous and lead to chances created. He only attempted seven tackles overall so to win six of them shows notable success.
When people speak about the Dutchman, playing in a midfield pivot rarely gets mentioned. At Manchester United, they’re lacking real quality in central areas. This has led to his gametime being limited, as they don’t believe he can play in a deeper role unless alongside a ball winner. With his tackle stats I’ve spoken about, he also managed three interceptions, two clearances and blocked a shot. This refutes claims he’s unable to play in this position. Of course, with the form of Bruno Fernandes, playing in an advanced midfield position was always going to be difficult for him but with previous managers persisting with Scott McTominay and Fred, he was never in with a chance.
In this game, no player touched the ball more than Donny van de Beek. He was dictating the whole game from start to finish. Although not creating any chances, he was simply the link between defence and attack, receiving the ball from the centre halves and giving it to the more advanced midfielders. This would then lead to chances being created by others. Typically, they could have done with someone of his skill set getting into the box unmarked like he done so well at Ajax, but they ended the game with just a draw.
Looking at his defensive game over the course of the season, no player in the Manchester United squad averages more tackles per game. Of the players to play more than three games, only Fred averages more successful pressures to an opponent per game. No player averages more tackles plus interceptions per game. Clearly, the defensive ability is there, and he’s been unable to produce the attacking numbers we saw at Ajax due to lack of game time. Whenever he’s played it’s been off the bench, out wide, deeper roles, anywhere they can squeeze him in, usually when holding a lead. To settle into English football, you have to be able to be given a role and stick with it regularly.
Speaking of game time, that’s been his biggest issue this season. In all competitions, he’s only played 14% of the minutes possible. In the Premier League, he’s only played 3.8% of the minutes possible. This is the lowest of all Manchester United players to have stepped on the pitch in the league. This is a man that cannot be written off and the ability is clearly there for all to see. If given more time to express himself I’m convinced a loan to Everton wouldn’t have even been a possibility.
Granted this is a very small sample size, especially against weaker, non-Premier League opposition. I’m not saying Donny van de Beek should categorically be played in a deep-lying midfield position, either. From the game I’ve analysed and looked deeper into statistics, it’s clear it’s a position he can play if needed. He’s also indicated in interviews that he personally feels that the #6 and #8 are his best positions.
The defensive capabilities are there and if partnered alongside someone like Allan, this would give freedom to fellow January signing Dele Alli to play just off the striker, a position he excelled in under Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham. Unfortunately, this would mean we’re not getting van de Beek’s attacking abilities which he showed at Ajax. However, with attacking options like Demarai Gray, Anthony Gordon, Richarlison, Dele Alli and co, this is certainly an option if needs be.