When Manchester United spent £40m on Donny van de Beek from Ajax last summer, many fans saw it as a great piece of business to boost their midfield options.
Van de Beek had become renowned as one of the best central midfielders in the Netherlands and his skillset seemed to suit what United wanted to add to their options. But what happened during the season left many, including the player himself, baffled as to why he was signed in the first place
The Dutch international made four starts and 15 substitute appearances in the Premier League last season, accumulating a total of 515 minutes of action. He found himself behind Scott McTominay, Fred, Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic and Bruno Fernandes in the pecking order, never managing to find a rhythm for himself.
But now as Manchester United look to improve on their runner-up finishes in Europe and the Premier League, Van de Beek will hope he has a far bigger part to play. However, he needs his manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to help him too and here’s how he can do it.
Switch formations: As mentioned earlier, Solskjaer has rarely veered away from his preferred formation of 4-2-3-1, which has been of no help Van de Beek at all.
The former Ajax academy graduate practically grew up in a 4-3-3 and showed all his best performances as an attacking box-to-box player. But with United he’s either played as a number ten and struggled to receive the ball that high up, or as a six in a pivot and struggled with the discipline that comes with that role.
Solskjaer can help facilitate success by altering the system in games where he feels it can work, instead of insisting on the same set up constantly and shoehorning his player into a role that doesn’t suit him so much.
Encourage more forward passes: Van de Beek was a very progressive footballer at Ajax, constantly playing on the front foot and moving forward when the team was in possession to increase the attacking threat. It’s a different story at Old Trafford, though.
Due to limited play time, he averaged just 38 passes per game and only nine of those were considered forward passes according to Wyscout. That means he is limiting himself to a much more conservative version of his best self, and if United are to realise the version they splashed the cash on he needs to come out of his shell and be braver.
Get him into the box more: As an Ajax player Van de Beek would regularly make third-man runs into the penalty to get on the scoresheet or play the final pass leading to a goal
Give him a run of games: There are few things more important in football than having match rhythm to help you find your form, something Van de Beek was never afforded last season.
The 24-year-old started three games in a row only once last season in all competitions and for a player who relies so much on his movement off the ball that will not have been helpful. Solskjaer has shown a fierce loyalty to his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation, failing to rest players regularly despite the hectic schedule, but by doing that this time the Dutchman should find himself involved far more.
In fact, during his final season with the Eredivisie giants he made 1.18 progressive runs per 90 mins and had 5.47 touches in the box per 90 minutes, according to Wyscout. Those numbers dropped to 0.52 progressive runs per 90 and 3.43 touches in the box per 90 in his first season at Old Trafford.
The numbers don’t lie: he was less of a threat going forward, which considerably hindered his ability to affect games. Get him in the box and let him loose, Ole!