Editor’s note: Tor-Kristian Karlsen is a Norwegian football scout and executive officer and former managing director and sporting director of AS Monaco. He will write regularly for ESPN about the business of football and the process of scouting. In his latest column, he deals with Donny van de Beek, the young offensive midfielder from Ajax, who has made a move to Manchester United.
While all eyes are on Manchester United’s efforts to sign Jadon Sancho from Borussia Dortmund, the Old Trafford team have quietly attracted one of Europe’s most promising midfielders. Last summer, the former Ajax midfielder was closely linked with Real Madrid after an impressive Champions League run to the 2018-19 semi-final, where he also scored in the knockout rounds against Juventus and Tottenham. The reported transfer fee of 45 million euros seems relatively appropriate for a player who is already well developed but still has a sales value and who seems perfectly suited for the Premier League.
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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 – although he has also been used as a “holding” player in front of the defence – Van de Beek has 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 has the ability to cover a large field.
Since he is a product of the Ajax academy and spent five seasons in the first-team squad, it goes without saying that all the corners and edges of his game have already been virtually brushed away. His touch of the ball is excellent, and just as impressive is the way he can turn around quickly, often out of tight situations, while retaining possession of the ball.
Van de Beek is also a very prolific midfielder. In 135 appearances (Eredivisie and Champions League) he has found the net 33 times and scored 27 goals. His trademark is the result of a late run full of momentum and determination into the penalty area, in which he usually struck from the left side and came to the finish with the preferred right foot in the far corner. The supercritical player may indicate that his scoring skills are still in need of improvement, but his ability to find space in the penalty area and anticipate the run of the ball is already at a remarkably high level.
Although technically talented in position, van de Beek is by no means a “conspicuous” or extravagant player. On the contrary, it is extremely practical: every finesse in ball possession tends to have a function and serves as a means of maintaining the flow of the game. Its brilliance is even more evident when the pace of play accelerates; there are few players who are better able to succeed in quick combinations in and around the penalty area. Whether it’s a delightful move to set up a teammate for a scoring chance or score a goal yourself, the execution is generally of a high level.
Complementing his offensive skills, the 23-year-old also has the body and physique to handle the less glamorous work in midfield efficiently. His size (6 feet) is relatively unusual for such a dynamic and technically clean footballer, but he is also willing to change defensively, chase the opponent back and distract him from the ball.
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Solskjaer will also be well aware that he has brought in an extremely positive character. Despite his youth, van de Beek has occasionally used Ajax as captain and is a constant source of positive “signals” during a game – just think of the way he encourages and applauds his team-mates, even if a pass attempt fails.
These small details may not seem important to some, but a player’s body language, both during the game and in training, is something that is getting more and more attention from scouts and recruiting officials across Europe, who are increasingly analysing this aspect alongside the more traditional player skills.
Manchester United have not only captured a potentially influential midfielder, but may even have a future club captain on his hands.
While The new arrival of Ajax is quite capable of co-existing with Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes – it is not uncommon for an ambitious top club to have an extensive squad and competition for every place – it is obvious that United are less redependent on Pogba, whose contract with the club expires next summer.
In the meantime, van der Beek’s commitment should have no effect on the further hunt for Sancho. While the new Dutch recruit should primarily fight for one or two offensive roles in central midfield, depending on which system Solskjaer chooses, Sancho is still a spectacular potential opportunity to strengthen the wide positions in the attack.