Champions League

The Donny van der Beek Puzzle

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Imagine scoring in a Champions League quarter final victory against Juventus in Turin. Imagine having already beaten Real Madrid at the Bernabeu 4-1 in one the greatest European victories of the decade. Imagine during said season you win a Double, ending a four year title-less drought. Imagine then moving to arguably the biggest club in the world for £40 million. Imagine, less than two years later, that you have to choose between going out on loan to a club either 13th or 16th in the Premier League. 

This is a snapshot in the life of Donny van der Beek, one the brightest talents in European football and the best attacking midfielder The Netherlands has produced in a generation. Since his move to Manchester United in 2020, he has remarkably started only four games. Van der Beek has often cut a forlorn figure on the United bench – a man so pale you can see his heart beating through his chest like a new born fish and with his scarf above his face as an auxiliary mask, he looks like the brains behind a failed bank robbery. 

He was an integral part of the Ajax team that blitzed it’s way to the Champions League semi-final in 2019, knocking down Super Clubs with their elegant, prgressive and defiantly confident football. The core young players of that team – Matthias de Ligt, Frenkie de Jong and van der Beek – represented a potential new Golden Generation of Dutch football. 

With de Ligt and de Jong gaining big-money moves to Juventus and Barcelona respectively, van der Beek chose – in what at the time seemed odd and in hindsight was terrible – a move to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United. 

Ajax, the pioneers of totaalvoetbal, are with the obvious exception of Barcelona, the most systemized, idealist and holistic football club in the world. The Ajax Jeugdopleiding, the club’s fabled academy, has produced numerous world-class players – from Johan Cruijf to Dennis Bergkamp. According to the CIES Football Observatory, Ajax have trained the 2nd most players currently active in UEFA’s 31 top leagues. Since the Rinus Michels’ era of the 60s and 70s, and reimagined after the Velvet Revolution of 2012, Ajax’s have created a club-wide philosophy of coaching-excellence, youth focused, progressive football. The entire structure of the club is built upon the idea, which was subsequently adopted by Cruijf at Barcelona with the legendary La Masia, of bringing through players that understand that philosophy intuitively, allowing them to join the first team with increased efficiency. 

Which makes van der Beek’s decision to join Manchester United, especially under the leadership of Solskjaer, all the more baffling. The financial incentives were plentiful; his £5 million yearly salary at United is the equivalent of 17% of Ajax’s wage budget for the first, second and third teams. As an example of how far behind the Eredivisie is in terms of financial power, Ajax earnt €10 million for their entire TV rights last year, whereas Neymar’s PSG salary is €36 million.  

However, from a footballing perspective, van der Beek’s choice to join United was misguided at best and foolish at worst. He went from playing in a highly-structured, organised, pressing-based system under Erik ten Haag at Ajax, a footballing style he had been playing his whole career, to joining the tactical black hole that was United under Solskjaer. 

Manchester United’s Norwegian manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer reacts during the English Premier League football match between Watford and Manchester United at Vicarage Road Stadium in Watford, southeast England, on November 20, 2021. – RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or ‘live’ services. Online in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No video emulation. Social media in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No use in betting publications, games or single club/league/player publications. (Photo by Ian KINGTON / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or ‘live’ services. Online in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No video emulation. Social media in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No use in betting publications, games or single club/league/player publications. / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or ‘live’ services. Online in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No video emulation. Social media in-match use limited to 120 images. An additional 40 images may be used in extra time. No use in betting publications, games or single club/league/player publications. (Photo by IAN KINGTON/AFP via Getty Images)

Solskjaer is not a terrible manager, he can quite conceivably earn his crust from coaching football teams for as long as he wishes to. But what was obvious from the start, and remained obvious until he was sacked, is that he’s not remotely an elite level manager. He effectively had two modes of play: compact, low-block, counter or ‘I dunno lads, just pass it about and hope for the best.’ 

So van der Beek chose to join a team and an entire football club that was an antematha to his experience at Ajax. United is an entire footballing institution with no structure, let alone just a team who can’t press properly. Van der Beek was always going to struggle in this type of footballing culture, just as Jadon Sancho has since his move from Dortmund. 

Why would he do this? Why would he trade the less runemrated but cultured cobbles of Amsterdam for the perpetual drizzle of Manchester? Money. Yes okay, we get it, Woodwood waved his chequebook and his eyes went ding ding ding! But was it worth the last two years of Lancashire purgatory? To be sat on the bench, his face trapped in an existential malaise like his Darko cousin as Echo & the Bunnymen drone softly in the background. 

He now finds himself at Everton, a club that might be even worse managed than United. £500 million spent in the last five years and nothing to show for it apart from an increase in the bitter nostalgia that plagues the fans of teams that were ‘big’ in the 20th century. He’s now under the tutelage of Frank Lampard, and van der Beek was reportedly his top transfer priority when he was appointed manager in January. He has started half as many games for Everton in three weeks as he did for United in two years, in a Lampard team that can attack blisteringly but seem to think defending is for nerdlingers. 

Everton are in serious relegation trouble with only 1 win in 5 and the sight of the House of Newcastle steaming up the table following their January blowout. Could this be the terrible peak of van der Beek’s time in England, being part of an Everton relegated for the first time since 1951. 

He left Ajax just to leave, feeling he’d outgrown the club and moved to a club, where yes he gets paid by the duffel bag, but were the total opposite of everything he understood about football is played and structured. He’s now caught between two clubs in perpetual crisis, perhaps wondering if that goal in Turin was not what helped him step up to the big-time, but the peak before the fall. 


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