Donny van de Beek has been linked to the likes of Manchester United and Real Madrid. This comes as no surprise with the youngster being tipped as one of the biggest talents outside Europe’s top five leagues. This tactical analysis will produce a scout report outlining why the young Dutchman has captured the attention of the elites.
After Ajax’s fantastic run to the Champions League semi-final last season, Van de Beek has become somewhat of a forgotten man. Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt secured big-money moves to Barcelona and Juventus respectively. This analysis focuses on Van de Beek, a man who has stayed loyal to his boyhood club.
Van de Beek’s role in this Ajax team has changed slightly since their unexpected success in the UEFA Champion’s League last season. Last season his most regular position was attacking midfield, playing just behind Dusan Tadic in a 4-2-3-1 formation. However, this season, Van de Beek has had to play in a deeper role. Often this season he has played defensive midfield in a 4-2-3-1 or a box to box role in a 4-3-3 formation. Relying more on his work rate and passing than his eye for goal.
van de Beek still has ten goals and eight assists this campaign, showing that his deeper position isn’t having a huge effect on his contributions. His defensive responsibilities have increased, but his average position is fairly similar to last season. For example, the image below shows his average position (number six) from Ajax’s 3-1 win over second-placed Heerenveen.
His awareness is key to his team’s performance, he knows when to attack, when to stay back and when to find a teammate. One of his biggest assets is his ability to play on the edge of the offside line and exploit space. Very rare for a central midfielder.
Above we see him exploiting the space between Heerenveen’s full-back and centre-back, pointing to where he wants the ball. Ajax coach, Erik ten Hag, likes his wingers to play high and wide, stretching the opposition. These tactics allow midfield players such as Van de Beek himself and Hakim Ziyech to get in behind.
Here we see the Dutchman in a much more advanced position that Ziyech, playing right on the defensive line. He calls for the pass, before slotting a perfect low cross along the six-yard box to be tapped home. His willingness to get forward at the right times is outlined by his stats, 6.26 touches in the opposition box per 90.
Evident by the example above, Van de Beek’s ability to know where his teammates are and anticipate what they are going to do shows his awareness. Not just in regards to his positioning, but others too.
Against PSV he notices a chance to create an opportunity. Instead of waiting for the ball to come to him, he gives himself as an option. He takes it off Ziyech and delightfully passes it first time into his teammate’s path. This kind of pass shows that he doesn’t shy away from a risky pass, and this is also evident in his passing statistics. He only completes 75.93% of his forward passes per 90 and 78.5% of his final third passes. However, these stats have slightly improved, since he’s been playing in a deeper position, with simpler passes often available.
His awareness to know that Sergino Dest is free here for a shot, whilst being surrounded by four players is truly sensational. Using his footwork he manages to find a pass, through the defender’s legs to Dest, who curls a right-footed effort into the corner of the goal. This is a perfect example of his ability to use his vision to scan the area, even whilst being pressured by the opposition.
Another feature of his attacking play is his explosive runs into the box. His habit of arriving late means that its harder for opposition players to track him all the way.
He catches the opposition ball-watching and calls for the ball in behind. In this instance, he gets goal side of the defender using his physicality. Tadic slips an inch-perfect ball in behind the backline for Van de Beek to run onto, exploiting the space behind the full-back.
Against Getafe in the Europa League, he ghosts into a position where he has space to work with. Enabling him to compose himself after taking a bad touch. This space is afforded to him because he’s arriving late and no defender has picked him up. He subsequently dribbles passed two defenders before having the spatial awareness to pass it across the box to his teammate.
van de Beek may not be as technically gifted as former midfield partner De Jong, but he makes up for this with his effort and physicality. This section of the scout report will focus on how he hasn’t shied away from the extra defensive work that he’s been assigned this season.
As outlined in the first section of this analysis, the young Dutchman’s ability to read the game is a great asset in attacking plays, however, this appears to have transpired into his defence. In the example above, against Utrecht, we see him back defending on the edge of his box, he’s able to read the pass in front of him and intercept it.
Below we can see how Van de Beek has used his reading of the game to cut out two options (labelled with the red arrows). He knows then that the ball carrier will have to turn and find another option, he uses this knowledge to arch around and slide tackle him from the side.
He is able to combine his footballing IQ with his speed and physicality to close down opposition players and limit their options. Against Valencia in the Champions League, he realises that Sergio Parejo’s two options are marked by his teammates; therefore he’s going to have to let the ball run across his body. The Ajax midfielder uses this knowledge to put in a robust challenge and win the ball for his team.
This analysis lines up with his defensive statistics, which show that he has improved from last season. He averages 4.26 defensive duels, 0.62 (64.29%) tackles and 2.31 interceptions per 90.
His hard work helps him fit perfectly into ten Hag’s tactics. He has the ability to get forward and create chances whilst pressing from the front. This, combined with his ability to track back and help out his defence means he epitomizes a box-to-box player. His defensive improvement has no doubt been the biggest change since last season, and he certainly hasn’t let his coach down.
Van de Beek’s goal conversion has dropped significantly since last season, 14.925%, as opposed to 20.225% last season. His goal chances have been harder, with more coming outside the box. Hence why his expected goals have dropped from 16 to 9.04. However, his composure before shots has improved. He can strike a ball cleanly and has been demonstrating that this season.
His ability to find space in the box from last season has helped him manufacture space outside the box on numerous occasions this season.
Above, against Utrecht, he doesn’t get dragged towards the ball, rather he waits on the edge of the area, in space. His teammate is able to lay it off perfectly to him. What follows is a cultured first-time finish, placed into the bottom right-hand corner of the net. Here, he can compose himself as he’s created so much space for himself, rather than rush an unnecessary shot like the one below.
Similarly, his goal against Emmen came as a result of him finding time and space to ensure his finish. The Ajax academy product identified that Ziyech would attract two defenders and that the opposition right-back was occupied by Quincy Promes. Meaning that he could peel off to the edge of the area to find space. Once again he takes his shot first time and curls it past the keeper.
His transition to central midfield has meant that he has had fewer chances in and around the six-yard box this season. However, against Chelsea, he showed that he still excels in these situations. Even with five Chelsea defenders inside the box, he is still able to find space and make himself available for a pass. He doesn’t get too close to the goal, meaning that Reece James and Kurt Zouma still have a heap of ground to make up if they want to block his shot. He receives the pass from the wing, takes one touch to compose himself and fire it towards the goal.
This tactical analysis has shown that Donny van de Beek has been an incredible asset to Ajax over the years, but is it time to follow the footsteps of De Ligt and De Jong to enhance his career? His tremendous spatial awareness and ability to know where his teammates are, along with his physicality and willingness to get forward would be a huge asset to any team. He has shown this season that he can be versatile, playing as a box-to-box midfielder but supporting the striker and wingers when needed. After being linked with some of the biggest clubs in Europe, it will be interesting to see which teams will swoop when the season resumes.