Editor’s note: Tor-Kristian Karlsen is a Norwegian football scout and executive and is the former chief executive and sporting director at AS Monaco. He will write regularly for ESPN on the business of soccer and the process of scouting. In his latest column, he looks at Donny van de Beek, the young Ajax attacking midfielder who has completed a move to Manchester United.
While all eyes have been fixed on Manchester United’s efforts to sign Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho, the Old Trafford outfit quietly landed one of the most promising midfielders in Europe. Last summer, the ex-Ajax midfielder was strongly linked with Real Madrid after an impressive Champions League run to the semifinals in 2018-19, which also saw him scoring in the knockout rounds against Juventus and Tottenham. The reported 45 million euro transfer fee seems relatively reasonable for a player who is already well developed yet still has sell-on value, and who appears perfectly suited to the Premier League.
The Dutchman, who has 10 caps for the orange shirts, offers Ole Gunnar Solskjaer quality and quantity in equal measure. Predominantly a box-to-box midfielder — though he’s also had stints as a “holding” player in front of the defense — Van de Beek features all the essential skills that make up a modern central midfielder. He is excellent on the ball, has an exceptionally well-developed footballing brain and boasts the ability to cover a lot of ground.
Being a product of the Ajax academy and spending five seasons in the first-team squad, it goes without saying that any rough edges to his game are already practically polished away. His touch on the ball is superb and the way he’s able to turn quickly, often out of tight situations, while keeping possession is equally impressive.
Van de Beek is also very much a productive midfielder. In 135 appearances (Eredivisie and the Champions League) he has found the net 33 times and set up 27 goals. His trademark goal is the result of a late run, full of drive and purpose, into the box, more often than not cutting in from the left to finish in the far corner with his favoured right foot. While the overly critical may point out that his finishing skills still have room for improvement, his ability to find space in the penalty area and anticipate the course of the ball is already at a remarkably high level.
Although technically gifted in position, van de Beek is by no means a “flashy” or extravagant player. On the contrary, he’s extremely practical: every finesse in possession tends to have a function and serves as a means to maintain the flow of the game. His brilliance comes into sharper focus when the pace of the game accelerates, too; there are few players better at successfully participating in quick combinations in and around the penalty area. Whether it’s a delightful touch to set up a teammate for a scoring opportunity or go for a goal himself, the execution is generally of a high standard.
To supplement his attacking prowess, the 23-year-old also has the body and the build to efficiently handle the less glamorous work in midfield. His height (6-foot) is relatively uncommon for such a dynamic and technically neat footballer, but he’s also happy to do a shift defensively, track back and brush opponents off the ball.
Solskjaer will also be well-aware of having brought in a highly positive character. Despite his youth, van de Beek has already captained Ajax on occasions and is a steady source of positive “signals” during a match — take the way he’s quick to encourage and applaud his teammates, even when an attempted pass fails.
These little details might not seem important to some, but a player’s body language, both during the match and in training, is something that is attracting growing emphasis among scouts and recruitment officials across Europe, who are increasingly analysing this aspect along with the more traditional player skills.
Not only have Manchester United captured a potentially influential midfielder, but they might even have a future club captain on their hands.
While the new arrival from Ajax is perfectly able to coexist with Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes — it’s not unusual for an ambitious top club to have an extensive squad and competition for every spot — it’s evident that United are making themselves less dependent on Pogba, whose contract with the club expires next summer.
Meanwhile, the capture of van der Beek should have no implications on the continued chase for Sancho. Whereas the new Dutch recruit should first and foremost compete for one or two attacking roles in central midfield depending on which system Solskjaer decides to play, Sancho still represents a spectacular potential opportunity to strengthen the wide positions upfront.