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Who is Donny van de Beek and why did Manchester United sign him from Ajax?

Having spent all summer trying to negotiate Jadon Sancho’s arrival from Borussia Dortmund, few expected Manchester United’s first signing of the window to be Ajax midfielder Donny van de Beek.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side have moved quickly, to their credit, to get a £40m deal over the line for the highly rated 23-year-old, beating off competition from Real Madrid and Tottenham. But why?

On paper it might not seem like a priority signing for United, particularly as they play hardball over money for Sancho, but by the end of the 2019/20 campaign it was clear Solskjaer trusted around 13 players. Understandably so, as the current drop in class at Old Trafford between the starting XI and reserves is stark.

Behind Bruno Fernandes is Jesse Lingard. Anthony Martial’s alternative is Odion Ighalo. Daniel James plays back up to Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood. Fred is there to fill in when Nemanja Matic cannot. Harry Maguire started 55 of United’s 61 matches in all competitions. A first XI will win you matches but a squad will win your silverware. And United lost three semi-finals in 2019/20.

With the pressure ramped up to finish in the top-four, Solskjaer pushed his best starting XI to the limit. Even with a few games to go it seemed like they were running on empty. Post-lockdown, Solskjaer named an unchanged United side for five league games running – a first for the club in 27 years. In the Europa League semi-final, Solskjaer didn’t make a single substitution until the 87th-minute despite being behind.

And Van de Beek’s arrival is the first step in resolving that problem. It’s a surprise Ajax managed to keep hold of Van de Beek for another season after he played an integral part in the club’s startling run to the last four of the Champions League in 2018/19, scoring against Juventus and Tottenham in the knockout stage. Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt made blockbuster moves to Barcelona and Juventus, respectively, straight away and Hakim Ziyech agreed a summer transfer to Chelsea at the start of this year.

Van de Beek is the last of Ajax’s genuine star players to take the next step and United are fortunate in many ways he has ended up in their arms. Real Madrid twice thought they were on the brink of signing the midfielder before COVID-19 forced them to reluctantly abandon their pursuit. Tottenham reportedly showed late interest but Solskjaer’s intervention is said to have convinced Van de Beek to head to Old Trafford.

Van de Beek’s arrival has led to speculation about Paul Pogba’s future. The Dutchman may well prove a long-term replacement for the 2018 World Cup winner but for this season at least he will likely play in rotation with the likes of Pogba and Bruno Fernandes. The latter helped take the attention away from Pogba and Van de Beek’s predatory instincts will also enable the Frenchman to focus on what he does best.

In the last three seasons, Van de Beek has impressively played a direct hand in 49 goals in 91 league appearances (28 goal, 21 assists) from a variety of positions and roles in midfield. How does that stack up against United’s current squad? In the same time, only Bruno Fernandes (82) and Marcus Rashford (52) have played a direct hand in more league goals than Van de Beek (52). The Dutchman averages a goal contribution every 147.2 minutes of playing time, less frequently than Fernandes (every 79.5 minutes for United) but more so than Pogba (every 151.5 minutes).

While neither Pogba nor Fernandes need a second invitation to shoot on sight, Van de Beek’s late runs into the box will add another dimension to their attack. United remarkably won 22 penalties in all competitions in 2019/20 and Solskjaer can count on Van de Beek adding another body to the mix. In fact, over the last three Eredivisie campaigns only two players, both of whom are strikers, have registered more touches in the opposition penalty area than Van de Beek (489).

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