As Donny van de Beek made his first competitive start for Manchester United against Luton Town on Tuesday night, another Red Devils milestone should have caught his eye.
Juan Mata marked his 200th start for the club with a goal from the penalty spot and while it’s still very early days for the Dutchman, there is an eery comparison between the two.
Mata is perhaps the greatest waste of talent in Premier League history.
Mata’s Man Utd stagnation
His time at Old Trafford has yielded an FA Cup, a League Cup and a Europa League title, but rarely has he been a fulcrum of the team in the same way he was at Chelsea, where he won the Player of the Year award for two seasons in a row, lifted the Champions League in 2012 and even sparked a debate over who was the Premier League’s most influential Spanish playmaker – himself or David Silva.
In stark contrast to his countryman, who left Manchester City this summer as an indisputable Premier League legend, Mata has averaged just 22 starts from his five full seasons at Old Trafford.
His international standing has plummeted too, with only nine of his 41 Spain caps coming as a United player. For comparison, he racked up 21 in just two-and-a-half seasons at Chelsea. And that startling fall from grace all harks back to the context in which Mata arrived at United.
Mata’s arrival at Old Trafford
Following a summer that saw David Moyes only attract Marouane Fellaini to Old Trafford, rather embarrassingly paying more than a recently expired release clause, Mata’s availability due to Jose Mourinho deeming him a defensive liability compelled the much-maligned Scot to swoop.
But with Wayne Rooney and Shinji Kagawa already in the team at No.10, and a rabble of Danny Welbeck, Adnan Januzaj, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young competing with each other out wide, actually fitting Mata in the team became a serious problem, one that only loomed larger through the fact he’d cost a club-record fee.
That problem was compounded six months later when Mata found himself working under Louis van Gaal, a coach who had no obligation to play him and added his own forward-thinking midfielders to the mix – Angel Di Maria and Ander Herrera.
The Mata-Van de Beek link
The consequence for the now-32-year-old has been succumbing to the role of a mere squad player for United, jostled between both wings and the No.10 role without ever really being given a prolonged run in any specific position, and failing to replicate the poster-boy standing he earned at Chelsea as newer, younger and more expensive signings have pushed him further down the pecking order.
Now, as his 200th start against Luton paid testament to, Mata’s greatest offering to United is keeping his more illustrious team-mates fresh legged for the bigger competitions by exerting his undoubted quality against significantly weaker sides.
And that’s where Van de Beek comes in. Just like Mata, we are talking about a supremely talented player.
But also just like Mata, he arrives at Old Trafford with no clear role in the starting XI to undertake and seemingly provides as many headaches for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as solutions, chief among those being how exactly you can get the best out of the Dutchman, Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes at the same time.
A multifunctional midfielder
It must be said that already there is a notable difference between Mata and Van de Beek. Whereas Mata’s allure is largely limited to the heights of his strengths – technique, chance creation and goal threat – the former Ajax star is a multifunctional midfielder.
He likes to tackle and he can sit deep and orchestrate play. In fact, when emerging from the club’s youth ranks and heading towards the senior team, he was initially billed as a deep-lying playmaker.
But ultimately, this is a player who likes to impact around the box as well and has gained a reputation for ghosting into it with deadly opportunism.
Van de Beek, Pogba, Fernandes
His three campaigns as an Ajax regular have produced 28 goals and 21 assists in the Eredivisie, accumulating to an average of 0.55 goal involvements per game.
He also boasts five goals and four assists in the Champions League and while very few managers would turn down a top-quality midfielder who only adds to their team’s goal potency, the ultimate question remains whether Van de Beek is the style of top-quality midfielder Solskjaer needed to bring in this summer.
After all, what is Pogba if not a midfielder who can sit deep and spray balls but also makes his presence felt around the edge of the box? What is Fernandes if not a No.10 who thrives on goals and assists?
Pep Guardiola’s proved on the other side of Manchester that clubs can win titles without a classic defensive midfielder in the Claude Makelele sense anchoring the engine room, but how often have we seen in any of Europe’s top leagues a three-man midfield entirely composed of players who primarily seek to score and create goals?
The right fit for United?
That’s why, despite scoring from the bench in his first Premier League game, doubts over the kind of impact Van de Beek can have at Old Trafford remain, and just like Mata it all comes down to the circumstances surrounding his arrival.
For starters, the midfielder’s own agent has claimed he was initially set to join Real Madrid instead, while it’s no secret United’s priority target this summer has been Jadon Sancho, a signing who’d directly address a clear gap in the squad on the right wing – so it has to be asked whether Van de Beek or United were each other’s first choices when this transfer window opened.
More pertinent though is the concern over Van de Beek’s role, and whether he’s the kind of midfielder United should’ve been looking at anyway.
Surely the smarter signing would’ve been a holding midfielder who’d give Pogba and Fernandes the platform to thrive, replicating what Fernandinho was doing until recently for Kevin de Bruyne and Silva at Manchester City.
Someone like Wilfried Ndidi or Declan Rice – not necessarily more talented players than van de Beek, but ones who better compliment those already at Old Trafford.
Solskjaer does have Scott McTominay, Fred and Nemanja Matic to choose from at the base of midfield, but none are of truly elite level and it was telling that even during Matic’s resurgence towards the end of last season, he was partnered with Pogba who was pushed into in a deeper role.
For the Frenchman and Fernandes to thrive offensively, United need someone with the legs to cover that area of the pitch pretty much single-handed.
Following the Mata route
Once again, Van de Beek has the potential to perform that duty. His goal-savviness and impressive technique is matched by a nippiness without the ball, an ankle-scraping energy.
But just because he can do that doesn’t mean he should or that United are getting the absolute best out of him, and that’s where the Mata comparison comes back into play.
His Red Devils career has ultimately boiled down to whether he can fit in somewhere, rather than building a part of the starting XI around him. When it comes to team selections, he’s been the habitual expendable for Van Gaal, Mourinho and now Solskjaer.
Wrong club at the wrong time?
In his two competitive United outings to date, Van de Beek has already been deployed in two different roles. Against Palace, he came on in place of Pogba as a No.8 alongside McTominay; against Luton, he started as the No.10 in front of two defensive midfielders, Matic and Fred.
Part of the Van de Beek’s appeal is that he can adapt to different roles and situations, in typical Dutch style.
But just like Mata before him, you have to wonder whether shifting around the engine room without ever making one single role his own, essentially sacrificed for the sake of more expensive, higher-profile team-mates, will be a disappointing theme of his United career.
An impressive talent no doubt, but has he simply joined the wrong club at the wrong time?
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