Donny Van de Beek at Manchester United: Right Player, Wrong Time and a Sad Symbol of the Red Devils Dysfunction

Donny van de Beek was, is and will always be an Ajax man. After attending his first game with his father at age 5, there was only ever going to be one true love for the Dutchman. A historic institution with a solid history of producing world class players such as Patrick Kluivert, Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and, most famously, the great Johan Cruyff, it was to some surprise when Van de Beek became Manchester United’s 4th summer signing in August 2020. 


The timing of the move was perhaps symptomatic of a club that wasn’t being run with the  forward planning that Van de Beek was accustomed to. Ajax, bound by financial constraints and being resigned to losing talents to bigger clubs across the continent every summer, operated with efficiency in replacing their lost prospects and ensuring sustainability.


Manchester United, then on their 4th manager since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement and widely viewed to be in a state of footballing flux, were left scrambling and panicking come the end of the summer transfer window for players that didn’t necessarily fit into an overarching footballing plan, a structure that Van de Beek needed to thrive. The first red flag perhaps?


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As a player, the Dutchman had made his name as a technical, hard-working and tactically intelligent midfielder, capable of operating as a box to box midfielder or between the lines as a traditional number 10. He was instrumental in Ajax’s run to the Champions League semi-finals and starred in a 1-0 away victory away to Tottenham before an agonising 3-2 loss in the return leg, as well as in Ajax’s league and cup double triumph of the same season. 


The transition from Eredivisie to the Premier League is often an uncertain one. For every Luis Suarez or Robin van Persie, there is an Antony or a Mateja Kezman. Van de Beek, for all his talent, found his path into the Manchester United starting XI blocked by a certain Bruno Fernandes, not only extremely talented, but also putting up goals and assist numbers that were becoming the envy of the entire Premier League.


Despite scoring in his opening Premier League appearance, a consolation effort in a 3-1 home defeat to Crystal Palace, the Dutchman managed just 511 Premier League minutes across the 20/21 season, totalling 19 appearances, of which 15 were as a substitute. Regardless of his positional versatility, van de Beek found his path into Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s 4-2-3-1 system blocked at every turn, the likes of Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic, Scott McTominay and Fred occupying the deeper midfield roles.


 A further 945 minutes across cup and European competition did little to convince fans or the coaching staff that Van de Beek was the right fit. Indeed, 36 total appearances (21 from the bench) with just 1 goal and 1 assist to show for it were indicative of a player struggling for form and confidence, despite the team itself marauding to a 2nd-place Premier League finish and a Europa League Final. 


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If his first season was a difficult one, Van de Beek’s second season would arguably prove to be the death knell in his Manchester United career. A miserable start to the season for the club cumulated in a humiliating 4-1 defeat away to Watford, the consolation goal carrying a dark irony in that not only did Van de Beek score it, it proved to be the last goal of Solskjaer’s managerial reign. With the £70m arrival of Jadon Sancho as well as a certain Cristiano Ronaldo that summer, the Dutchman managed just 380 minutes in all competitions before being loaned out to Everton in the January transfer window. 


“That is always on those players and how much confidence you have in your capabilities, I can tell you one thing — the Premier League is tough, Manchester United, that is tough to play there because it is easier to play in almost any other team than Manchester United because the pressure is that high, always.You have to deal with that. It depends from player to player, and it depends especially on the character of the player, their personality.”


Erik ten Hag’s assessment earlier in the month about what went wrong for Van de Beek. In charge since May 2022, the Dutchman’s appointment should have heralded a new dawn for the former Ajax number 6 having spent 3 highly successful seasons together in the Netherlands. Instead, he endured a horrific 2022/2023 season, accumulating just 294 minutes of football across all competitions in between a bout of shingles and a serious knee ligament injury. 


Fast forward to January 2024 and, having accumulated just 21 minutes of football since August, Donny van de Beek has been loaned to Eintracht Frankfurt with the Bundesliga outfit having an option to buy the Dutchman for £9.5m in the summer. The conclusion has to be that Van de Beek was unlucky to join Manchester United not only at a time the club was mired in a state of dysfunction, but also at a time when the player in his preferred position was effectively carrying the team.


With that being said, a cocktail of injuries and a subsequent loss of confidence and form meant that the move was never going to work out as both parties would have wanted it to. Van de Beek is not the first top class player to be sucked into the Manchester United void, and he won’t be the last. With Jadon Sancho suffering the same fate in the Old Trafford chaos and grabbing an assist in his first game back for Borussia Dortmund since leaving for the Red Devils in 2021, the Dutchman will be hoping to resurrect his career away from the malfunctioning pressure cooker that is Manchester United. 


By: Jack Mcardle / @Jacko9492

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Getty Images