If there's one thing Dennis Bergkamp cares about, it's space. As referenced in Michael Cox's book Zonal Marking, the Arsenal great only discusses football in reference to how much space was afforded to him. At Inter, not so much. In England, a lot more.
So when Bergkamp says that Van de Beek is a player who shares the same qualities as him, we can be sure that the Ajax midfielder is a master of manipulating space to his advantage.
In Ajax's effortlessly fluid system, VDB pops up wherever defenders aren't, whether it is left, right, or centre. Dusan Tadic's role as a false nine has always allowed him to drift and Van de Beek often finds himself operating within that space. That's why that, even for an attacking midfielder, his contribution numbers are hugely positive.
Much of his game is based on movement off the ball and his understanding of where other players are in relation to his own presence. But people will want to have a look at his numbers over the past three seasons, so let's take a look.
Donny van de Beek, 17/18 to 19/20
Goals + Assists
|Non-Pen Goal P90||0.35||0.33||0.38|
|Non-Pen Cont P90||0.54||0.7||0.61|
Van de Beek's proper breakthrough season at Ajax, after drifting in and our of the side as a teenager, came in 2017/18 where he put up superb breakthrough numbers.
You can see that he is a regular contributor from a goal and assist perspective and unlike future team-mate Bruno Fernandes doesn't have penalties to superficially boost his underlying numbers.
You can also see that we have a player who, really, crosses over with Fernandes in terms of skillset.
|Comp Dribbles P90||1.4||0.8||1.0|
Van de Beek's creative numbers aren't quite as impressive as Fernandes but they are less similar players in terms of their off the ball movement. Fernandes is the type to unlock defences while actually touching the ball, while Van de Beek's actions can be more subtle and off the ball.
He drifts into spaces where defenders wouldn't expect to see him, sometimes to receive the ball but in others to create room for team-mates to prosper. He has also enjoyed operating near Tadic and interchanging positions with him.
Can Fernandes and Van de Beek operate in the same team? It will be interesting to see if VDB can compliment the Portuguese's talents effectively.
VDB is a pretty consistent goal threat from midfield and his shots P90 figures, as well as his consistent accuracy, reflect this.
He is nowhere near as prolific as Fernandes is - who, for better or worse, hits almost double the number of shots P90 that VDB does, but it does, once again, beg the question as to whether these two are used to operating in the same areas.
Real Madrid were an option a year ago for Donny, but their interest cooled. There could be two reasons for this; one, Zinedine Zidane likes his midfield trio in a 4-3-3 to be a little more defensive minded with the onus on progressing the ball to the front three - hence Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric.
Or, the emergence of Martin Odegaard at Real Sociedad - who returns to Madrid a year early of a two-year loan spell at the request of Zidane - meant that moving for Van de Beek didn't make sense. Whichever way you look at it, VDB's ability to break into attacking positions from midfield is his prime attribute, and a midfield of him, Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes appears overly offensive and threatens to expose Harry Maguire and whoever his defensive partner may be.
|Final Third Pass P90||18.6||15||20|
Van de Beek's regular passing figures show a man always on the front foot and passing in the final third, but is not a hugely active participant in the game like a Frenkie De Jong or even a Pogba would be.
He picks his moments to get involved and attempts more dangerous passes, hence his lower pass completion %.
Once again, Van de Beek is an adaptable footballer with an incredible engine who can cover most of the pitch. He will be a valuable asset to United, no matter what. But the idea of a Pogba/Van de Beek/Fernandes triumvirate in midfield? Time will tell whether that proves to be the correct balance.