With the summer transfer window not very far away, Ajax's Donny van de Beek remains a wanted commodity in Europe. But what is it about him that makes him so special?
While football has been brought to a grinding halt by the coronavirus pandemic, clubs across Europe are already jotting out plans to strengthen their squads for the next campaign. And one name that is likely to have come across in discussions at every top club on the lookout for a new central midfielder is that of Ajax star, Donny van de Beek.
Real Madrid, Manchester United, Juventus, Barcelona and Tottenham are only some of the clubs that are pursuing the signing of the 23-year-old Dutchman heading into the summer transfer window.
Born in 1997, Van de Beek started out at his local academy at Veensche Boys, before Ajax came calling in 2008. The midfielder’s rise through the youth ranks at Ajax was rapid, to say the least. By 2014, he was part of the club’s U19 setup, just aged 16, and was soon moved to the U21 team.
It was in November 2015 that the midfielder made his first-team debut in a 2-1 win against Scottish giants Celtic in a UEFA Europa League contest, at the age of 18 years and seven months. While he was in and around the first-team for the next season, it was in the 2017/18 campaign when he finally became a first-team regular as another academy man, Davy Klaassen, left the club.
The youngster slotted in so seamlessly into the first-team that the departure of Klaassen was hardly felt. Van de Beek went on to make 39 appearances across all competitions in the 2017/18 season, finishing with 13 goals and six assists. It was during the same season that he also broke into the Netherlands national team as well.
But the 2018/19 season was the one where he firmly put himself on the map in European football, as he, along with fellow academy midfielder Frenkie de Jong, led Ajax to their first Eredivisie title in five years and a memorable semi-final run in the Champions League.
Van de Beek finished the 2018/19 season with 17 goals and 13 assists from 57 matches in all competitions, that included three goals in the Champions League. Two of the three came in the knockout stages, one against Juventus and Tottenham each.
While De Jong left for Barcelona last summer, Van de Beek stayed put at Ajax despite interest from Real Madrid and Manchester United and has been in fine form once again. The 23-year-old has plundered 10 goals and 11 assists in 37 matches this season and will be unable to add to that tally further with the Dutch season being called off and Ajax already out of the Europa League.
As can be seen from the numbers, Van de Beek has been constantly improving with each passing season, with his goal and assist returns on an upward curve consistently. Should the 2019/20 season had continued in the Netherlands, there was a great chance that he would have bettered his numbers from last season.
Why is Van de Beek in such demand?
The fact that Van de Beek can slot into any role in the middle of the park makes him such a valuable asset to the team. Be it as a No.10 or as a box-to-box midfielder or even as a deep-lying midfielder, the 23-year-old is more than capable of holding his own in any of the roles asked of him.
Such versatility is what makes the nine-time capped one of the most in-demand footballers ahead of the upcoming transfer window.
Often, the 23-year-old acts as the link between the defence and attack for Ajax, starting moves, and has also mastered the art of making late runs into the box, a-la Frank Lampard, and finding the back of the net consistently.
Out of his 2.1 shots per 90 minutes in the Eredivisie (23 games), 1.8 come from within the penalty box, but none in the six-yard box. This gives an indication of the positions he gets into when his team is attacking and how adept he is at making those late forward pushes to catch the defenders off guard.
Van de Beek completed 1.9 key passes per 90 minutes in the Dutch top-flight this season, highlighting his ability to create chances for his teammates.
But the midfielder also excels in the defensive side of things, which is what makes him such an all-round performer. In the 2018/19 Eredivisie campaign, Van de Beek averaged 2.2 tackles for every 90 minutes on the field, showing that he isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty in the middle of the park.
Someone with such all-round abilities, Van de Beek can operate as the ball-carrier in a 4-3-3 setup or can easily be used in the No. 10 role or in the midfield double-pivot in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
The 23-year-old has the sense and the awareness to know when to press forward and attack and when to stay back, while this same game-reading ability comes to his aid in the defensive phase of the game. Blessed with physicality, speed and good close control, in many ways Van de Beek is the complete package of a modern-day central midfielder.
What do the experts say?
Former Ajax manager Frank de Boer, who handed Van de Beek his first-team debut, revealed how he first learned about the midfielder’s talents. "Dennis [Bergkamp] started talking enthusiastically about a talent in his youth team. It was a boy who reminded Dennis of himself at that age. That was the signal for me to keep an eye on that guy. That was Donny."
Bryan Roy, who coached Van de Beek during his youth team days at Ajax, goes on to describe the Dutchman as a total footballer.
“Physically he has always been devastating since he knows how to attack and defend with the same skill. He was very shy but already smart on the playing field. He is a total footballer; offensive runs are one of his great specialities.”
The likes of Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt hogged the limelight for Ajax’s success in the 2018/19 season, but Van de Beek was an unsung hero. The 23-year-old has built on that successful campaign with another strong season and looks set for a big-money transfer come summer.
Given his abilities, there is no denying that the Dutchman would be an ideal fit in the Premier League football, while a step-up to Real Madrid shouldn’t also be ruled out at this moment. It remains to be seen where the Netherlands international ends up come next season.
Only sky is the limit for the midfield powerhouse that is Donny van de Beek.
Feature image courtesy: AFP / Glyn Kirk