Donny van de Beek: A humble hero
After the Netherlands’ Nations League meeting with Italy in Amsterdam during this month’s international break, a cluster of Ajax supporters stuck around outside the stadium to pay tribute to one man.
“That kind of farewell has happened a few times before from Ajax supporters when a player has left,” says Dutch football journalist Elko Born, “but they have a really special relationship with Donny van de Beek. He’s come from the club’s Academy, he comes across as just a really normal, regular guy and people have always liked that about him. Obviously he’s done very well since he came up to the first team and, all the way along, people have tended to really like him.”
The Ajax model is well-established: raise gifted ‘total football’ talents in the club’s youth system, blood them at senior level for two to four seasons and reluctantly say farewell to the best of the crop when bigger clubs across the continent take interest. Such a system conditions against growing too attached to players marching down that path but, with Donny, exceptions were made for someone who had long been on fans’ radar.
“Attacking midfielders are always exciting and Donny fitted that role well because people expect a lot of good, attractive, attacking football from them, and he delivered that,” Born continues. “He scored a lot of goals as well, even as a youth player, so that marked him out, too. People just really liked him even before he’d become a first-team player. When he did step up, he took to it pretty quickly. He’s a pretty confident guy, he’s very focused, pretty serious a lot of the time and it went well for him almost immediately. Sometimes a player can have a good debut, a good couple of months and then maybe fall back a little bit for the next few months, but with Donny that didn’t seem to happen. Even as a young player, he seemed like a real leader of the Ajax team, even in huge games. He was always stepping up to the plate with his performances and his goals too. He doesn’t really seem to be fazed by pressure.”
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The bloodied nature of his first senior goal in December 2015 immediately cemented Donny’s place in supporters’ hearts, and after bursting to prominence midway through 2015/16, the following term marked his ascension to first-team regularity. A solid campaign in 2016/17 ended with a substitute’s role against United in the Europa League final, but it was in 2017/18, his second full term, that Donny’s career went into overdrive.
Goals began flowing at an eye-catching rate, with 13 in 39 games marking the first of three straight seasons in which Donny reached double figures. His haul of 17 in 57 during the course of 2018/19 was a major contributing factor as Ajax won the Eredivisie title for the first time since 2014 and were seconds away from reaching the Champions League final. Donny’s goals at Juventus and Spurs in the quarter and semi-finals respectively underlined his ability to thrive on the biggest stages.
But for the abandonment of the 2019/20 Dutch season due to the coronavirus pandemic with Ajax atop the table, van de Beek was in line for his second league winner’s medal. Allied to his involvement in the latter stages of both the Champions League and Europa League, his experience of chasing top honours was extensive even before his 23rd birthday. Despite being repeatedly linked with both Real Madrid and Barcelona in recent transfer windows, it was United who swooped decisively earlier this month. Although, on first glance, the Reds’ midfield ranks had already been hugely bolstered by the January arrival of Bruno Fernandes, the return of Paul Pogba and the renaissance of Nemanja Matic (not to mention fine campaigns for Fred and Scott McTominay in 2019/20), van de Beek’s adaptability makes him an extremely shrewd acquisition.
“No matter what position he’s playing, he always ends up in the opposition’s box at the right moment, even when he plays as a defensive midfielder, so I think it’s a signing that really suits United’s playing style. United try to be quite direct, transition quickly, move up front with speed, and he’s really good at that. He can turn the transition to the attacking phase really quickly and also contribute in the opponents’ area.
“His role at United will be very interesting because obviously there are already some very good midfielders at Old Trafford, but van de Beek’s high quality and versatility will come into play. United have a lot of games in the Premier League and Europe this season, and Donny could fit into a lot of different positions in midfield. I could see him in any of the three roles, including as a defensive midfielder, so it will be fascinating to see where he takes his chance.”
The Dutchman started this month’s pre-season friendly at Aston Villa and occupied both deeper and advanced midfield roles in his first outing for the club. Despite that hefty hiatus and a much-changed experimental XI around him, van de Beek provided the Reds’ outstanding display. He went on to make his official debut from the bench against Crystal Palace and, although the defeat was disappointing, his goal provided a glimpse of a talent that will hopefully flourish in red.
Back in Amsterdam, meanwhile, Born says fans of the midfielder’s former club will be following his progress intently, both today and beyond.
“Ajax fans are used to players leaving the club after a couple of years, for obvious reasons,” he admits. “It makes fans sad but there’s an acceptance too and certainly a feeling of pride for those players as well. It’s like one of your children going off into the world and getting a great job. You just feel proud that they’ve made it. They want to see him do well at a big club like United because then one of your own is doing well in the wider world.”
Having won over Ajax’s fan base almost immediately and left with their blessing, Donny has been welcomed with open arms at Old Trafford. Now, his aim is to quickly play his way into the hearts of United supporters everywhere.