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Don't blame Fernandes; don't blame Donny: Why Man Utd happy with slow-burn Van de Beek

COMMENT: Donny van de Beek and his slow start at Manchester United. If there's one man who's happy to see the Dutchman taking his time, it has to be Zinedine Zidane...

James Rodriguez at Everton. Gareth Bale at Tottenham. Can you just imagine the scrutiny Zidane would be under if Van de Beek had defied the odds and was making an instant impact for his new club? After all, it was on Zidane's say-so - or better yet, demand - that Real Madrid reject the chance to sign Van de Beek in January.

For now, the Real coach looks a genius. At the time, Zidane - with Fede Valverde flying and Toni Kroos as consistent as ever - saw the option as overkill. Real's management believed otherwise, but the Frenchman, as part of a pact made upon his return to the club with president Florentino Perez, has final say on all transfers. Despite a willing Ajax eager to sell, the Van de Beek option was passed up.

So, good enough for Real Madrid. Good enough for Florentino, his No2 Jose Angel Sanchez and the club's football bosses. But falling short at Manchester United...? No. Van de Beek is good enough for this United team. And he is good enough to compete at the high end of the Premier League. As we mentioned, for his age, for the standard of today's Eredivisie, the 23 year-old would've defied long, long odds if he had instantly translated his form in an Ajax shirt to the Red one of United.

Just consider his peers from that great Ajax team of 2019. Frenkie de Jong has a year on Van de Beek and is still finding his way and battling doubters at Barcelona. Matthijs de Ligt has hardly pulled up any trees at Juventus - those claims that he chose the wrong club still persist. And Justin Kluivert, who missed that run to the Champions League semifinals, choosing to join AS Roma instead, well he's now trying to rebuild things at RB Leipzig. If Van de Beek can finish the season with a good chunk of games under his belt and a belief amongst the fanbase that he's there for good, he'll be breaking the post-Ajax mould.

And that's before taking into account his sudden rise. As Dusan Tadic, his former teammate at Ajax says, Van de Beek wasn't on the radar two years ago. At 21 and trying to establish himself in Ajax's midfield, he was nothing like the player who was sold to United for £35m at the end of August.

"If you look at what Donny was like when I just arrived at Ajax (in the summer of 2018) and look at the player he is now, there is a world of difference," declared Tadic, formerly of Southampton.

"I've never seen a player develop like this. His work ethic has also improved tremendously. I'm proud he has grown this way and I'm sure he will do well at Manchester United."

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Van de Beek celebrates scoring for Holland against Spain last week


Some claim Bruno Fernandes is the problem: He and Van de Beek are too similar. The Portugal international, clearly, is the superior talent. After all, why couldn't Van de Beek kickoff his United career as Fernandes did upon his January arrival from Sporting CP?

But player for player. Man for man. They're nothing like eachother. Before pulling on a United shirt, Fernandes had played in two different countries. He had battled through the lower divisions of both Portugal and Italy - and had come out the other side. At 25, as captain of Sporting and after four senior clubs, Fernandes was simply better prepared to enter a new dressing room, establish himself amongst new teammates and adjust his game where needed to a new of football. Everything Fernandes has experienced over eight years as a senior pro, Van de Beek is now packing into his first two months as a United player. There's simply no comparison.

Reasoning that Fernandes is blocking Van de Beek as United's prime No10 is also erroneous. At 23 and coming from the Eredivisie, there was no way Ole Gunnar Solskjaer nor any of the United manager's staff would expect Van de Beek to jump straight in and start running his team's midfield. Even with Fernandes missing, Solskjaer would never have risked it. Not for his team's sake, nor Van de Beek, himself. Such an expectation is bordering on the ridiculous.

Specialist coach Ruben Jongkind, who worked with Van de Beek inside the Ajax academy, called it early: Donny has everything to succeed at United, but would need time.

"He's going to be challenged," warned Jongkind. "I think the average age in the Premier League is around 26, 27 years old. But I think he has shown in European tournaments he has the skills to play at the highest level."

And it's those skills which Van de Beek will have to lean on if he is to make it at United. Becoming the club's outstanding No10 shouldn't be the be-and-end-all for the Dutchman. Like Jongkind, others who have seen Van de Beek come through at Ajax say he has the ability to play in a variety of midfield roles.

Ajax football chief and United Champions League winner Edwin van der Sar says: "He can play in all positions in midfield. He can play six, eight and ten and has a nose for goal.

"He also has excellent technique and can operate as a box-to-box midfielder. That makes him multifunctional, but I think he prefers it as a deep midfielder."

So some see him as an outstanding No10. Others, like Van der Sar, see a young midfielder capable of working from deep. In other words, Van de Beek has it within him to reinvent his game. To adjust to the opportunities available to him in United's midfield. He doesn't need to butt heads with Fernandes to make it at Old Trafford, he has the versatility to find another way into Solskjaer's plans.

Indeed, he need only look at one of his former Ajax teammates to see how rethinking a preferred position can work in a player's favour. From holding midfielder to ball-playing centre-half, Daley Blind found a way to survive at United before returning to Ajax after four years away. There's no reason for panic from the Van de Beek camp with Fernandes firmly established as United's prime No10.

For United. For Solskjaer. At 23 and on a five-year contract, Van de Beek is a long-term investment. No-one amongst the coaching staff expected anything immediate. And if those Dutch pundits were a bit more honest with their public, they'd acknowledge the ever widening gap between the Eredivisie and the Premier League when critiquing Van de Beek's situation.

Van de Beek will be a slow burn. And given Solskjaer's track record with his incoming transfers, Donny will get there. The Dutchman will be given all the time he needs to prove Zidane was wrong this past January.

Chris Beattie
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Chris Beattie

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