Whilst writing this scout report, the name Donny Van de Beek is currently circulating the football world with reported heavy interest from clubs like Manchester United, Real Madrid and Newcastle United (pending major takeover).
The twenty-three-year-old midfielder has caught the eye of football’s elite representing Ajax, for whom he was an academy graduate, making his first-team debut at the young age of eighteen. Best known for his goal against Tottenham Hotspur in the semi-final first leg of Ajax’s impressive 2018/19 Champions League campaign, Van de Beek is not your normal number 6, operating most effectively in more advanced positions this season for Ajax.
So what makes the Dutchman so unique?
In this tactical analysis, I will discuss Van de Beek’s role in Erik ten Hag’s Ajax side, his defence-splitting forward runs, his ability to switch the play and instigate attacks, as well as how he’s able to ‘lead the line’ in terms of pressing for Ajax.
For a central midfielder, Van de Beek has impressive offensive metrics averaging 0.36 goals per 90 (just under a goal every three games) and 0.25 assists per 90 in the Eredivisie so far. He ranks fourth overall in the league and best in his position for expected assists in 19/20, with an xA of 11. Also notable are his key passes with 75 so far in 19/20 already bettering his tally of 68 for last season in 11 fewer games, ranking him fourth in the league for this amongst fellow midfielders. That’s an average of 3.3 key passes per game proving his attacking influence on his team-mates.
Amongst central midfielders, Van de Beek ranks 3rd in the league for chances created (26), beaten only by Simon Gustafson of Utrecht (30) and Mark Diemers of Fortuna Sittard (33). Van de Beek’s overall involvement is ever increasing on past seasons as he’s flourishing with Ajax, 936 passes in 23 games compared to 903 in 34 last year, accompanied with a passing accuracy of 85%.
His defensive contributions are highlighted averaging 3.3 ball recoveries per match, and 3 interceptions per match show his desire to break up opposition play. 27 times this season Van de Beek has made a ball recovery in the opponents half, expressing Ajax’s hunger to press oppositions immediately after possession is lost.
It’s important to see the balance in play both offensively and defensively from the young midfield prospect, accurately reflecting Van de Beek’s ‘box to box’ or ‘engine’ style of play from this analysis. When compared to the midfield of prospective buying clubs, its easy to see where the excitement and interest for Van de Beek come from. Up against the midfield of Manchester United, we can see Van de Beek heavily leads the way in some of the most important attacking metrics in the game.
This suggesting Van de Beek is hugely effective and efficient in the final third, traits any football fan would want to see from a midfielder at their club. When compared to the midfield of Real Madrid results are similar against the same offensive metrics. Toni Kroos’ key passes accuracy (48%) being the only superior statistic to Van de Beek’s, again advocating the brilliance of Donny Van de Beek this season and his threat to any opposition defence from the midfield role. Whilst these comparisons might seem surprisingly good in Van de Beek’s favour, we must consider the quality of opposition in the Eredivisie compared to the Premier League and La Liga.
From this scout report we present the question, would Van de Beek’s metrics remain as impressive should he be playing in one of the ‘big five’ leagues, and against world-class opponents week in week out?
Role within Ajax side
Starting in twenty-two of the twenty-three league games this season, its clear to see how crucial Van de Beek is to this Ajax side. Setting up in a 4-3-3 formation, Van de Beek has most commonly been deployed as the right or left-sided central midfielder in a midfield three for Ajax this season, with the occasional game as the defensive midfield pivot.
A strength of Ten Hag’s tactics is the flexibility of positioning in this area of the pitch, as we often see this midfield three rotating roles during a match in an attempt to disconnect opposition, as-well giving Van de Beek the freedom to drift into wide and more advanced areas of the pitch when in possession. The midfield three have been arranged in a two-then-one shape occasionally, with Van de Beek being used in both one of the pivot roles and the 10 role. Ten Hag’s team is well drilled and educated on this Ajax system, meaning the ten outfield players are capable of trading positions with one another comfortably anytime throughout the match, showing strong positional flexibility, a key attribute for any side wanting to avoid overload defensively as well as adding a fluid attacking style for Ajax.
This brings the best out of Van de Beek as his penetrating runs from deep give Ajax superior numbers in attack which I will talk about in more detail throughout this tactical analysis. This style allows Van de Beek to roam in and out of position, making him very hard to mark/follow for the opposition and easier for finding pockets of space all over the pitch.
Van de Beek’s hard-working box-to-box style play is instrumental to this team as we often see the dutchman flying forward on the offence offering problems for the opposition back four’s, and within moments making lunging tackles in and around his own eighteen-yard box should Ajax lose possession and become threatened by an opponent counter-attack. Without this ‘traditional styled’ hard graft to work back as well as forward from Van de Beek, partnered by strong tactical awareness and notable match endurance, Ajax would be frequently vulnerable in defensive transition as a result of their desire for attack and control. This is reflected with an average of 3.3 ball recoveries per game this season.
His industrious grind is also essential as although Ajax look to press immediately after possession is lost, Ten Hag likes to keep depth between the lines when in possession again leaving his side exposed with plenty of space to play through should any opposition move the ball forward quickly enough.
Van de Beek is a midfielder comparable to the likes of Steven Gerrard, Arturo Vidal and Paul Scholes whose strengths lie in their box-to-box stamina orientated style in addition to their proven influence on a game both in attack and defence. Van de Beek is versatile, being used in the number 6, 8 and 10 positions throughout his time at the club thus far.
A distinctive part of Van de Beek’s style is his well-timed and well-positioned forward runs from deep, which many oppositions have failed to effectively defend against when the dutchman is in the mood.
Starting from a standard position in the middle the park, Van de Beek will then proceed further to position himself in a pocket of space usually between the oppositions full back and centre half, effectively leaving the midfield three and creating a front four for Ajax. This advanced positioning and the frequency of this movement is most unusual for your normal central midfielder and is seen as a risky move by most. But Van de Beek and Ajax have found a very productive way to outnumber the opposition’s defence in transition and penetrate spaces in-behind and through their back four.
Often once receiving the ball, Van de Beek finds enough time and space to then square the ball to an on-running teammate, or get a shot away himself. This manoeuvre is a major contributor to Ajax’s goal scoring this season as-well as Van de Beek’s personal assist and chance creation tally’s.
Van de Beek times his runs well, waiting until the ball has reached a wide teammate pulling the opposition fullback out and stretching the back four, thus opening the space for a Van de Beek run, or a hard-driven pass into his feet where he can lay-off to on running Ajax attackers. Finding this pocket of space allows the playmaker time for multiple touches should he decide to turn and run at the opposition defender. When played in behind, Ajax on many occasion create a three against three scenario in the box, with opposition midfield struggling to follow the Dutchman’s run.
The combination of a perfectly timed run and simple through ball from the likes of Ziyech, Dest or Promes, has often been enough to break the defensive line for Ajax this season allowing them to flood the penalty area with red and white shirts, much to the liking of Ten Hag’s attacking tactics.
Advancing into these positions creates the problem for opponents of who should mark/follow him? Analysing the image below versus Chelsea, we see Van de Beek has proceeded goal-side of his original marker Jorginho creating an issue for fullback Azpilicueta. Azpilicueta must now decide either to pick up Van de Beek and leave Nicolas Tagliafico with a torrent of space out wide, or stick with the Ajax fullback and allow Van de Beek to push further forward into the space he operates so dangerously in between the opposition fullback and centre-half. This creating the three against three picture up top for Ajax as previously mentioned. Either way, Ajax have created a situation where space is developed for one or more of their players through Van de Beek’s movement.
Through this tactical analysis, I found that even should Willian drop to support Azpilicueta and follow any Tagliafico runs, this would leave time and space in possession for the two centre-halves. Veltman and Blind, as-well as pivot midfielder Martinez are all quality ball carriers.
The three would be comfortable playing around the now isolated Chelsea forward Abraham, and proceed up the pitch themselves which they have done on many occasions this season. Van de Beek’s movement is also aided by the movement of Ajax’s forwards. The likes of Promes, Tadic and Ziyech will often drop deep off the defensive line, leaving space for Van de Beek to target.
Switch of Play
Another great asset to Van de Beek’s play is his ability to switch the ball to the opposite side of play when Ajax is in possession, coinciding with his spacial awareness, and often leading to goalscoring opportunities for his team. This sounds an elementary ability of any top midfielder, but to the degree of influence and importance this aspect of Van de Beek’s game has had over Ajax’s chances creation is eye-opening.
Van de Beek is able to lose his midfield marker swiftly and again find pockets of space to receive, turn, and play to the opposite side, often to an on running Dest or Tagliafico who will receive in the fullback position aiming to now directly penetrate the opposition on their weak side.
Due to Van de Beek’s long-range passing ability and the speed at which he can play out, Ajax will often find themselves in 1v1 or 2v2 situations on the opposite flank, very much suited to the attack-minded fullbacks Ten Haag tends to deploy. This long-range link up contributing majorly to the 48 shots seen this season from Ajax’s fullback pair, showing us again Van de Beek’s influence on Ajax’s attacking patterns.
Ajax are able to tempt opposition into one half of the pitch when in possession, often overloading on one side, with overlapping fullbacks and/or underlapping midfielders when the ball is presented to their wide men.
We see in the image below through a large passing phase for Ajax on the right flank, opposition Getafe has moved all but one player onto that side of the pitch in an attempt to trap Ajax and win possession back. This creating the space on the opposite side and the opportunity for Van de Beek to be the link in the switch, leading to a direct goalscoring opportunity for the reds.
Van de Beek’s movement to find these spaces is not ordinary of a central midfielder and relates to his forward movement previously mentioned. Simple yet effective, if Van de Beek does not see the opportunity to receive in the forward line once he has advanced higher up the pitch, he will then proceed to drop-off this line back into a pocket deeper in the pitch on the oppositions weak side.
This motion is difficult to defend against at it requires strong communication between opposition defence and midfield in regards to who follows the dutchman when he drops deep. If the central defender steps out of his line to do so, he risks leaving space in-behind for Ajax attackers to run into as-well as a dangerous 3v3 scenario upfront. If a midfielder is instructed to mark Van de Beek, this becomes very difficult as the run is being made from behind the opponents initially line of sight, and will force the midfielder to stretch out of position to the opposite side of the ball.
Thus Van de Beek has created a situation where either he will receive and switch the play, or he has dragged an opposition midfielder out of position and created more time and space for the Ajax ball carrier.
This movement is typical to that of a ‘false 9’ role, dropping deep to receive the ball in an attempt to link up play and drag an opposition defender out of the line, creating space in-behind for diagonal runs of wingers.
The likes of Roberto Firmino at Liverpool and Andres Iniesta during his time with Spain at the 2010 World Cup perfected this movement and created a powerful base for these teams to work around, also allowing them to overload the midfield.
This element of Van de Beek’s game also illustrates his importance and role in Ajax’s ability to play out of an opposition press, which is becoming a more common tactic within the modern game.
Van de Beek’s defensive actions are as important as his offensive ones and are somewhat under-looked. When possession is lost, Van de Beek is frequently in an advanced area of the pitch for his position, a result of his relentless attacking desire. In this transition moment, instead of jogging back into the midfield three, he often looks to press the opposition ball carrier immediately with high intensity.
His pressing mentality and immense defensive work-rate are reflected in his 3.3 ball recoveries per match in the league this season, giving Ajax opportunities to counter-attack swiftly and be of an immediate threat to the opposition goal when he wins possession for his team high up the pitch. A risk is of-course taken if the opposition is able to play out of Van de Beek’s pressing attempt he leaves his side a man down in the midfield and vulnerable to the opposition attack. This underlines the importance that the Dutchman’s pressing is not an individual action, and instead supported with the same effort from his teammates to ensure the highest chance of a successful turnover. This is much to the liking of Ten Hag’s attacking football philosophy as it adds offensive threat to his side even without possession.
We see in the example above Van de Beek’s hunger to win the ball back after it is lost results in a 6v5 scenario for Ajax in the final third of the pitch, resulting in a goal-scoring opportunity.
Usually, the number 9 leads the team with regard to pressing actions and triggers. But for Ajax this season it has undoubtedly been Van de Beek who initiates the press being a major contributor to Ajax’s pressing efficiency of 53% in the league this season, the highest in the Eredivisie.
Donny Van de Beek is a well-rounded talented young midfielder showing characteristics and attributes of great dutch players before him in this tactical analysis. Van de Beek’s standout trait is his effective off-the-ball movement and his space creation for himself as-well as his teammates. He adds a unique attacking dynamic to his team with sharp runs from deep which no opposition has been able to successfully defend against to date, partnered with his composure in and around the goal, resulting in an xA of 11 this season, highest in the league for his position.
His work rate both in and out of possession is second to none making him a nightmare to keep up with for opposition defences, as well as always being motivated to do the hard yards in defence makes it a mighty task for opposition’s to play out from the back. Despite Van de Beek’s high-intensity box to box style, when on the ball, he is patient and reliable stringing together multiple short passes and understanding the importance of possession, before being able to play the killer pass and create goalscoring chances for Ajax.
A weakness in the playmakers game is his rashness in giving away free kicks and fouls, a ramification of his intensity, and one which can be mended with the coming of age, experience and maturity. Van de Beek optimises Ten Hag’s football tactics and has been the key player and secret attacking threat for Ajax this season, matching and debatable doing more than the departed Frenkie De Jong, now of FC Barcelona.
Understandably Van de Beek is gaining attention from the biggest clubs in the world and should he move on from Ajax, I believe from this analysis he has shown the ability and potential to perform at the highest level consistently. For a midfielder whose game relies heavily on his manager’s lenience to allow involvement very high up the pitch, my initial instinct would be that Van de Beek will struggle to fit into footballing systems requiring more defensive appreciation and possibly see the Dutchman being more caught out/punished from higher quality opposition’s in higher quality leagues.
But this exciting young spark has shown immense work rate and recovery runs to convince me otherwise throughout this 19/20 season analysis and I predict Donny Van de Beek to be a world-class, well-rounded midfielder in the future wherever he should play. For the neutral he is an enjoyable watch, making a presence all over the pitch accompanied by a traditional ‘get stuck in’ attitude which he wears with pride throughout every game.