“Kill someone, save a life
Don’t do drugs, drink all night
Worship Jesus, praise Satan
Opinions are all contradiction”
– Burst by Anthrax.
We live in the age of extremes and the song by American Metal band Anthrax (ironically made in 1993) is a really good example of what I’m talking about. We can spend days debating about the causes of this current state of affairs, but the reality is that we live in a time where people seem to either have a very extreme take on one side or another very extreme take on the opposite side of the spectrum, rarely finding balance or civilised discourse in the process.
This is something that is very common in football, especially if you go to that God-forsaken land that is social media: civilised behaviour is often ignored for the sake of interactions and nuances are thrown out of the window simply because you’re in a platform where you can say anything you want without having to go through any consequences (which is fine, but doesn’t make your opinion any more valid or well-informed). And when we focus on Manchester United, one of the greatest examples of that nature of extremes is probably the most controversial signing in Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s tenure so far, Donny van de Beek.
At this point, if you are a United supporter, you already know the situation: the Dutchman was signed in the summer of 2020, there were a lot of expectations about his addition to the squad, didn’t play as much as a lot of people, including the player himself, wanted and it has become one of the biggest criticism of the Norwegian’s time as the club’s manager: that either he can’t or won’t give the former Ajax player the chances he needs to make an impact. This has been particularly highlighted at the end of the recent transfer window, with the player’s agent, Guido Albers, openly talking about the lack of playing time for his client and even van de Beek himself did an interview this week with United legend Rio Ferdinand, stating how much he wants to play on a more regular basis.
As I mentioned earlier, this being modern society and this being Manchester United, balanced takes are by and large thrown out the window: Solskjær is either a fool for not playing van de Beek more often or his critics are just in a witch hunt because they need a stick to beat him with. And there has been a discussion about the Dutchman’s position, with some people claiming he shouldn’t play as a number ten, which was his usual role at Ajax, but rather as a box-to-box midfielder or even as a defensive midfielder due to Fred’s subpar performances in recent games.
The big issue with the signing of Donny van de Beek, at least when it comes to the debate of his playing time and his position, is that is mostly driven by preconceived thoughts about the player and the manager involved in this discussion, which tends to influence people’s criteria. So, depending on where you’re standing in terms of supporting Solskjær or not, you’re most likely to have a very extreme opinion on the Donny situation, which is objectively wrong.
Your opinions on a manager shouldn’t allow extreme takes on a certain topic because it leads to shallow and unbalanced analysis.
I’m a firm supporter of Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s tenure and I think he has done a remarkable job at the club, but not getting the most out of Donny van de Beek is certainly valid criticism. We can debate on whether the Dutchman was a panic signing or not, that he should be a squad player or not, but the reality is that van de Beek has rarely been used in a way that you think is worthy of his qualities and abilities.
When United were eliminated by Sevilla in the UEFA Europa League semifinals in 2020, the common assumption was that Solskjær didn’t have any quality choices on the bench to make an impact when the game got difficult and van de Beek was viewed as a solution to that squad depth problem. Fast forward to the UEFA Europa League final in 2021 and he couldn’t still get off the bench when the team needed a goal to win the game, with people yet again claiming that the Norwegian had a weak bench.
And this has been a running issue during the Dutchman’s time at the club: he was signed to be another variable in the squad, but he has rarely been used when it matters. Cup games are well and good, but considering his qualities, he could have been a lot more impactful in other matches and this in return could have helped Bruno Fernandes to have a well-earned rest, thus having the latter fresher for the final stages of the season (something Solskjær has struggled with in the last two seasons now).
Donny van de Beek is a special player due to his skill set. Very few players have the wonderful off-the-ball movement that the former Ajax man has and his capacity to find pockets of space in the rival’s box is something that United could have used more last season, especially against low blocks. I understand the physical and technical adaptation to English football, but there is a valid argument that the Dutchman wasn’t seized as much as he could have in some games, especially when Bruno Fernandes was found struggling either due to the opposition closing him or suffering from fatigue.
Games like the 5-0 win against RB Leipzig in the UEFA Champions League or the 3-2 victory over Liverpool in the FA Cup last season had Donny van de Beek as a starter and Bruno Fernandes on the bench with the latter entering as a sub in both cases. And while Donny didn’t set the world on fire with his performances in those games, he was serviceable and effective, which helped complement a great team performance in two very big games against two big rivals.
This is something I wish Solskjær would have done more often last season because a Manchester United side without Bruno Fernandes and with Donny van de Beek on the number ten role is something that the opposition are not used to, which makes the team harder to read at times–certainly Leipzig and Liverpool were not expecting that. So it’s a bit understandable that there are people that feel that Donny should have played more and that he has been wasted at times when he could have been very useful to the squad, even in terms of mere squad rotation as Bruno ended the season very tired.
This is not up for debate when one of the main causes of United’s problems last season was squad depth–you can’t afford to have a quality player like van de Beek on the bench when times call for rotation. I can fully understand him being a sub, but I can share the opinion that he should have played more, regardless of how annoying or extreme some critics of Solskjær have been with the Dutchman’s playing time.
That brings me to the other side of spectrum, which is the people trying to constantly criticise the Norwegian or downright abuse him because van de Beek is not a starter or because he doesn’t play him in a pivot over Scott McTominay or Fred.
The Solskjær/van de Beek diatribe has reached such a point of ridicule that a good portion of the United fandom in social media have this nonsensical “#FreeDonny” hashtag as if the player is a slave that is only eating bread and water. But you never see something like this with Nathan Aké, who cost Manchester City more than what United paid for Donny, or with Kostas Tsimikas, who is a talented left-back that has only played a grand total of 10 games across all competitions since he signed for Liverpool in the same summer that van de Beek came to Old Trafford. Can’t United have good squad depth? Donny is not better than Paul Pogba or Bruno Fernandes, so he is naturally going to be on a lower level in the team’s hierarchy. It’s natural and it happens all the time in football.
Now, the claims of him playing in a pivot is a very interesting case because it shows people not actually wanting to get the best out of him but rather seeing him play no matter what. Yes, van de Beek can play in a pivot, but he is a player that has thrived and has enjoyed his best performances in the number ten role or as a second striker, finding pockets of space and attacking the opposing box. That’s his whole game and where he is at his most unique. Former United player Owen Hargreaves compared him to Thomas Muller and I agree with that assessment because they both have superb off-the-ball movement and can read the game like the best of them.
You lose that by playing him in a pivot. And if your argument is that he is a better player than McTominay or Fred, the concern shouldn’t be overall quality but rather who fits for that specific role. Bruno Fernandes can play in a pivot and he has done it for Sporting and the Portugal national team, for example, but that doesn’t mean he has the athletic qualities of the Scotsman and the Brazilian and neither Bruno or Donny have the defensive numbers of the former.
A lot of people claim that Fred had a disastrous performance against Wolverhampton and he clearly didn’t cover himself in glory against Adama Traoré, but what makes you think that van de Beek would have fared any better? Donny doesn’t have the energy and engine that the Brazilian has, which makes the pivot at United extremely slow, which is a running issue when Fred is not playing–that none of Pogba, Donny, McTominay or Nemanja Matic are fast enough on the ball and with their movements to make transitions faster. Fred is not by any means perfect, but Solskjær is not an idiot and plays him for a reason–great performances in big games in the two previous seasons have proven that Fred can be useful to the squad, especially when it comes to pressing and retrieving the ball and that is something Donny struggles with.
Playing Donny van de Beek on a pivot will never make the team 100% work and will never make the Dutchman reach his full potential. You can argue the same with other pivots that don’t feature Donny in the current squad and you would be correct, which is why signing a midfielder was so important this summer and not getting one could be costly for United this season. But van de Beek is not a permanent solution in that role and only generates a whole new set of benefits and problems while still eluding the idyllic balance.
There is also the fact that van de Beek simply hasn’t performed well enough to make things hard for his manager. He has had some decent performances, but none where he has been the best player on the pitch. If you want to make an impact and convince the manager that you can be starter material then every single chance matters and he had 15 starts last season–that’s a very good amount of opportunities to show your worth and prove that you can be a starter. But sadly, he never had a performance of that caliber and I say this as someone who really rates Donny.
I don’t know if van de Beek was a planned signing or not. I don’t know if Solskjær wants or know how to use him properly. But I do know that this is a prime example of how extreme opinions make a complex situation even more complex and unnecessarily so.
Donny van de Beek should play more, but he is not a martyr and he is not the solution to United’s midfield woes.
At the end of the day, the guys of Anthrax are right: opinions are all contradictions.