As the rain bucketed down on top of Old Trafford late in the second half of Manchester United’s drab 0-0 draw with Chelsea last Saturday, the Sky Sports cameras panned to the Red Devil’s latest summer signing, Donny van de Beek.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side looked to have given up on the idea of a victory, as the £34.7m man looked on from the bench.
The Dutchman would presumably have loved to have been out on that pitch, helping his team to a late win.
Instead, he was sat in the stands, watching the rainfall. There was a strong element of poetry to the image.
After five Premier League games played so far this season, van de Beek has played a total of 61 minutes, spread across four games.
While he was joined at the Old Trafford entrance by Alex Telles, Edinson Cavani and Facundo Pellistri in the transfer window, van de Beek was supposed to be United’s marquee addition.
Yet fans have been left dumbfounded by his lack of minutes so far this season.
It has begged the question – why was Donny van de Beek even signed in the first place?
Ok, so it is completely normal for new signings to be eased into their new surroundings.
Look at Fabinho and Andy Robertson at Liverpool – it was months before they were regular starters at Anfield, yet now they are world-class regulars.
The difference, in this case, is that there is little sign of exactly where van de Beek will fit into the team in future either.
The main reason for this is that he is competing with United’s key player, Bruno Fernandes, plus Paul Pogba, for a starting place.
Where could van de Beek fit in?
Van de Beek is at his best either as a number 10 behind the striker or as part of a midfield three with the license to bomb forward.
He did play deeper when he first broke into the Ajax side, usually in a double pivot with a defence-minded midfielder beside him.
However, he evolved and the 23-year-old now has quite a similar style to Frank Lampard. His main strengths are scoring goals and assisting them.
His numbers in this regard are rather outstanding.
These numbers are quite special for such a young midfielder. He is clearly incredibly talented, even if he has just done it in Holland thus far.
Sounds good, until one considers that United only recently signed the catalyst for their relative success in the last few months. And, as mentioned, he plays in van de Beek’s position.
United have much bigger needs
Solskjaer looks to be set on a 4231 formation, with Fernandes in the number 10 role.
Fred and Scott McTominay seems to be his favoured partnership in the double pivot behind him. This opens up a whole new debate surrounding what to do with record signing Pogba.
The post-lockdown period of last season saw him partner Nemanja Matic in the pair behind Fernandes. It seemed to work to good effect.
Yet the manager is seemingly not going to put his trust in the duo this time around.
This is fair enough given Matic’s ageing legs, while Pogba seemed a lot more interested in working hard last season than he has done thus far this season.
The obvious thing to do would be to replace Matic with a younger, better version of him, right?
While both Pogba and Fernandes have different styles of play to van de Beek, they both have similar roles on the field. Their main aims should always be to attack.
Big teams cannot afford that many midfielders who simply do not defend enough. There is not room in the team for two of them in a 4231, never mind all three.
The Pogba conundrum
Yet the root of the problem is simple. This is just the latest of Manchester United’s errors surrounding squad planning.
Yes, they needed to improve their squad. It is good to know that if Fernandes is unavailable for a game, they have van de Beek in reserve.
But surely they should have actually brought in the players needed to cement the starting XI before then improving the squad?
Manchester United were absolutely crying out for a lights-out defensive midfielder.
So why did they decide to spend big money on someone who instead plays in the same position as two of their best players? The word ‘nonsensical’ does not do it justice.
Pogba was at his best for Juventus as the most attacking member of a midfield three. He had Arturo Vidal covering every blade of grass to cover him defensively. Andrea Pirlo ensured that the Frenchman was in the right places at the right times.
He was one of the best players at the 2018 World Cup in double-pivot with the most elite seek-and-destroy midfielder in the world, N’golo Kante, beside him. He also had Blaise Matuidi to cover him from his inverted left-wing position.
Crucially, however, Pogba was not a complete liability defensively in either side.
In his first season in Serie A, he averaged 3.8 defensive actions per game. The seasons after that brought 3.3, 2.9 and 3.5 respectively. While not elite, he certainly took a fair share of the workload.
At the World Cup, it was 3.2 tackles and interceptions. Again, very decent numbers.
His highest defensive contribution for United? 2.8, in his first season. Since then, it has only gone downhill.
It is obvious that Paul Pogba is either A. not willing to work hard for Man United, or B. no longer able to work hard for Man United.
Why the club did not save the £35m spent on van de Beek and put it towards signing someone like Wilfred Ndidi is anyone’s guess.
What now for United and van de Beek?
So now, United are still in need of a defensive midfielder. Yet they have three attack-minded midfielders who all have elite potential. As well as £35m less in the transfer kitty.
To be frank, it seems obvious what they need to do – sell Pogba.
If they can sell him for a big fee and buy a top-class number 6, then their squad will look a lot more balanced.
Maybe they could revert to a 433 with the defensive midfielder between van de Beek and Fernandes.
Yes, this would be taking Fernandes out of the position that he does so much damage in right now. But if the duo could strike up a good relationship, it could work just as well.
It would mirror what Manchester City did with Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva. It would be incredibly difficult to find a player of Fernandinho’s quality to do the defensive work, but they could try.
Both Fernandes and van de Beek are capable of working hard and they are both intelligent footballers. They should be able to manage a ‘one go, one stay’ system. Especially with another player behind them to cover.
Another reason this could work is Aaron Wan-Bissaka. He is an unbelievable defender but average at best going forward. He could just stay back and let the two midfielders attack instead.
So it is possible that Donny van de Beek’s signing could still be justified. Yet that does not excuse the fact that it was incredibly illogical at the time.