Donny van de Beek’s best position is just behind the striker, according to Erik ten Hag.
Speaking ahead of Manchester United’s game against Melbourne Victory (via ManUtd.com), the new boss said of his compatriot, “his best position is his capabilities in the box of the opponent, so playing short behind the striker.”
So what could a United side that aims to get the best of the number 34 look like?
The first thing to understand is just how differently Van de Beek interprets the attacking midfield position to Bruno Fernandes.
The Portuguese has shown talismanic capabilities in a number ten role with his creativity and direct passing.
He is a chance-creation freak, often having no real desire to dictate play and preferring to force the issue with defence-splitting passes and shots on goal.
While that can at times be frustrating, the sheer volume with which Fernandes feeds attackers is well worth the trade-off, all else being equal.
Van de Beek, meanwhile, has a pretty limited passing range. In possession he is a safe pair of hands and will doubtless rack up a better ball retention percentage, but that comes at the expense of creativity.
Donny just isn’t a creative passer – he’s a possession recycler at best in this department.
Where he does shine, is actually in receiving the ball in good areas.
“He has a really good smell for being in the right position,” said Ten Hag, who would certainly know a thing or two about getting the most of Van de Beek having worked so productively with him at Ajax.
And speaking of Ajax, while Donny nominally played a number ten role, he was certainly not in the team for his creative passing ability.
He was a “runner,” with Dusan Tadic and Hakim Ziyech functioning as the side’s primary “creators.”
Indeed, a look through Van de Beek’s goal compilations at Ajax will show just how much the Dutchman benefitted from playing with a “death or glory” style of passer – Ziyech and Van de Beek should probably not have been sold separately, such was the value of their understanding on the pitch.
So to get the best of Van de Beek, he should not be seen as an alternative to Bruno Fernandes, but as someone who would thrive in a set-up with him – Van de Beek needs a Hollywood passer, just as much as the passer would benefit from a top-class receiver.
A solution could be to line up in a 4-2-3-1 with the Dutchman in his favoured position behind the striker and give Fernandes the same sort of role afforded to Ziyech by Ajax in the Champions League semi-final side – off the flank of his weaker foot.
That will allow for dangerous angled passes into Donny and the striker, and with Jadon Sancho looking likely start on the right this season, United will be able to stretch teams on that side, creating more space in the middle for central players to get on the end of Bruno’s passes.
What is crucial is to realise is that when Bruno plays in the hole, he must be surrounded with runners. For Donny it’s the opposite: he must be surrounded with creators.
Therefore the impending announcement of Christian Eriksen – another creative passer – would be a benefit to the Netherlands international rather than a threat in this set-up, as it means more players able to find his clever off-ball runs.
With Rashford in the side, Bruno simply returns to number ten, and everything looks pretty standard again – but the key is to rotate the two runners, rather than replace creators with them as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer often did.
That would put Van de Beek in direct competition with Rashford for a position, so even if this is the plan, he probably won’t be playing every game.
But it will certainly improve his chances of being effective when called upon and getting the chance to show why Manchester United paid £35m to secure his services.