“I think Donny showed again his qualities,” Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said.

“He’s very technically clean and he makes good decisions like the flick to play Juan through. He’s got that quality to open up tight games and he’ll benefit from this game.”

It was a moment of magic, a delicate flick which demonstrated in equal quantities technical ability, spatial awareness, footballing intelligence, creativity and joy in the game.

Van de Beek made his ninth start for Manchester United vs Watford

It was Donny van de Beek’s best moment in a game between Manchester United and Watford which was defined by its notable averageness. No player made a name for themselves – positive or negative – and it will be a fixture consigned to that part in the back of your mind where rubbish games stew for years, only to be yanked out when you’re required to perform a demonstration of football nerdery.

For Van de Beek, it was only a ninth start for United since his £40m move from Ajax last summer. Solskjaer has tempered expectations and demands by comparing the Dutchman’s development as similar to that of Fred or Victor Lindelof; players who did not immediately come into the team but have now established themselves in the starting line-up.

There is obviously cause for concern. The former-Ajax man is hardly playing as a substitute, let alone as a starter. This was a chance, though. Some conclusions can be taken from it.

“Van de Beek has the magic touch”

Van de Beek has some exceptional qualities. He is a fun player to watch; he’s got the magic touch of Fernandes but in a more efficient manner. There is only one of those touches in a game, but it will come off. Fernandes is a different player – high-risk, high-reward – who will try eight flicks and see four of them come off. Fernandes is the player United need right now.

Therein lies the problem. Van de Beek played in a two-man midfield against Watford. While impressing higher up the pitch, it is abundantly clear that – for now at least – he is not an option in the double-pivot. Fernandes is in his way at number 10.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 01: Donny Van De Beek of Manchester United reacts during the warm up prior to the Premier League match between Manchester United and Arsenal at Old Trafford on November 01, 2020 in Manchester, England. Sporting stadiums around the UK remain under strict restrictions due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in games being played behind closed doors.
(Photo by Phil Noble – Pool/Getty Images)

Can Donny van de Beek play in a two-man midfield?

He has a quickness of thought, a good tempo to his game, a fantastic spatial awareness, but he is not a central midfielder. More on those qualities in a second, but one moment in particular showed why he is not an option to partner McTominay against better opposition. Ismaïla Sarr tore forward on the break for Watford. United led 1-0, but the Senegalese winger’s incredible pace caused, as Solskjaer put it while lifting his hand up to his neck, “your heart to come up here.”

Van de Beek had left McTominay isolated. He likes to press as if he’s playing at number 10, which is his favoured and best position. Perhaps Solskjaer thinks he can coach him to become an option in that midfield. There is a possibility, even, that United’s manager is planning longer-term for next season. Solskjaer might want a future at the club with a three-man midfield. His £40m signing could play in such a system with good people around him.

Dutch midfield has brilliant football intelligence

That all being said, Van de Beek is different to Fernandes, as already stated. His greatest attribute is his footballing intelligence. It manifests itself in two ways. First, he is scanning around his constantly and thus is aware of everything on the pitch. It’s the skill that England coaches at St. George’s Park try to teach all their midfielders, using clips of Andres Iniesta and Jack Wilshere.

 

Van de Beek is never caught in the cover shadow (meaning the shadow of a marker while not being directly marked) and so always offers a passing option. McTominay could learn from him in that regard.

It also means, though, that when Van de Beek gets the ball (which is far less often that Fernandes), he doesn’t have to look to know where he wants to pass it. Take the flick for Mata which is shown above; Van de Beek never turns his head to check Mata’s run, he already knows where the Spaniard is. It’s intelligence and awareness. Mata has the same quality, and together, they can play some lovely football. That backheel sliced through Watford’s defence and deserved a goal.

With those qualities, you almost get the sense that as much as Van de Beek needs to adjust to United and to his new teammates, they have to do the same with him. An attacking midfielder with Van de Beek’s efficient retaining of the ball could be brilliant for United.

How is Donny van de Beek different to Bruno Fernandes?

A few statistics outline this perfectly.

Van de Beek makes 38.64 passes per 90 minutes compared to Fernandes’ 56.21. The Dutchman completes 85.7% of them, compared to Fernandes’ 75.5%. In short, Van de Beek plays fewer passes with more chance of them finding their intended man. Fernandes tries more passes, a lesser proportion of them come off, but still more than his teammate. High-risk, high-reward against efficiency.

That difference in style of play is echoed in how many times each player loses possession per 90 minutes. Van de Beek does so 7.3 times. Fernandes does so twice as much: 15.25 times.

It leads to different outcomes. Fernandes provides 2.11 shot assists (the pass that leads to a shot) per 90. Van de Beek only contributes 0.83.

Manchester United's Dutch midfielder Donny van de Beek (R) comes on for Manchester United's Portuguese midfielder Bruno Fernandes (L) during the English Premier League football match between Sheffield United and Manchester United at Bramall Lane in Sheffield, northern England on December 17, 2020. (Photo by PETER POWELL / POOL / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE.
(Photo by PETER POWELL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

One interesting stat proves another difference, though. Van de Beek has 3.81 touches in the penalty area per 90 minutes. Fernandes has fewer: 2.5. Fernandes operates all across the pitch but rarely in the box. VDB touches the ball all over the pitch but comes into his own in the final third, especially in and around the box where he can play off his teammates, as he did with Greenwood and Mata for that first-half chance.

What is the ideal situation for Manchester United?

We know Van de Beek has the potential to be a good player for United. The best example of that was his role in the 4-1 win against Newcastle United. He needs more time to show it and Solskjaer will eventually give him that time.

The ideal scenario is one in which United can choose between Fernandes’ high-risk, high-output approach and Van de Beek’s more tempered, efficient approach, or a mix of the two, for different games. If the 23-year-old can be a true back-up for Fernandes, that would allow the Portuguese to get more rest, an absolute essential this season.

It’s still time to be patient, and expectations still have to be tempered, but Van de Beek showed some great intelligence to his play against Watford. Some more chances to see that in the second half of the season would be great.

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