In the space of 16 months, he has gone from being indispensable for Ajax and making a strong claim for the No. 10 position in the Netherlands national team to a peripheral figure at Manchester United and out of the Dutch reckoning.
His time at United since his £35m move from Ajax can be summed up by three matches against Villarreal. First was last season's Europa League final, where he cut a disconsolate figure as one of the unused substitutes. Then in the Champions League in September, cameras caught his frustrations as he was again left on the bench while his side chased a winner.
Against the same opposition in November, Van de Beek was handed a rare start in Michael Carrick's first game in charge following the dismissal of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. It's too early to say whether it marks the start of a new beginning or another false dawn.
"He was perfect for the system at Ajax, but I don't think United and Donny are a good fit," ex-Netherlands midfielder Rafael van der Vaart told ESPN.
Those who know Van de Beek are adamant that this turbulent spell will not throw him off his rhythm but could instead motivate him to take his game to the next level. After all, he is, at his core, still the same brilliant player who helped inspire Ajax to their Champions League run in 2019, the player who scored against Juventus and Tottenham Hotspur and was then pursued by Real Madrid, only to ultimately sign for United. But for whatever reason, it's been an uneasy marriage. To date he has made just four Premier League starts across nearly a season and a half, and has managed just 61 minutes in the top flight this term.
It could be that Solskjaer's exit will give Van de Beek another chance to prove himself at Old Trafford. He scored the final goal of Solskjaer's tenure in their 4-1 defeat at Watford and played an hour under Carrick in the 2-0 win at Villarreal on Tuesday that guaranteed progress in the Champions League.
Regularly ignored by Solskjaer, the Norwegian's sacking can only be good news for Van de Beek. United have successfully hired an interim manager, Ralf Rangnick, to take the team until the summer before making a permanent appointment in the summer. Van de Beek can only hope the new men, whoever they are, are keen to offer every player a clean slate.
Over the course of the past nine months, ESPN has spoken to staff at Manchester United, Dutch football experts, former internationals and other sources in the game. This is the story behind the curious case of Van de Beek and whether his prospects will improve at United, or it's time to leave.
What United saw in Van de Beek
Dutch players have covered every inch of the sliding scale of success to failure at United. For every success story like Jaap Stam, Robin van Persie, Ruud van Nistelrooy or Edwin Van der Sar, there have also been those who never settled, like Memphis Depay or Alexander Buttner. Van de Beek became the 12th Dutch player to sign for United in September 2020 when they paid Ajax £35m for the chance to sign him.
Solskjaer said the transfer strengthened "the depth of talent" in midfield, with Van de Beek's "ability to see space, time his movements and read of the game" some of the key attributes that led to United signing him. Yet earlier that summer, United were convinced Van de Beek was Real Madrid-bound. They had followed him closely for the best part of a year, and when they heard Madrid had ended their interest in the Dutch international, they moved quickly.
Sources told ESPN that United were pleased with how easy it was to deal with Van de Beek and his entourage: Negotiations were painless, and Solskjaer, having spoken to the midfielder on the phone, was pleased with Van de Beek's manner.
With Paul Pogba's future uncertain (his contract expires in 2022) and Solskjaer still not convinced by Fred, United saw Van de Beek as player who could offer an option as a No. 10, 8 or 6 in their midfield. But in the summer of 2020 that also saw United chasing Jadon Sancho, a new centre-back and a holding midfielder, the Van de Beek signing was a surprise option. He wasn't a "must-have," but instead a luxury player who would bring added class to a packed part of the squad.
The early stages were promising as Van de Beek endeared himself early to the fans both on and off the field. A post on Instagram showed he had a new pool table in his Manchester home, complete with United badge emblazoned on the felt. He scored on his Premier League debut off the bench in United's 2020-21 season-opening defeat to Crystal Palace on Sept. 19, but it proved to be a false start, and United fans were limited to sporadic glimpses of their new midfielder.
Sources told ESPN that people within the club in those early months were drawing comparisons between Van de Beek's introduction to United and how Henrikh Mkhitaryan fared in the early stages of 2016-17 after completing his move from Borussia Dortmund. United felt Van de Beek would find the pace of the Champions League more familiar, rather than the workload and intensity of the Premier League. It's something ex-Tottenham and Netherlands midfielder Rafael Van der Vaart can relate to, when he made the switch to the Premier League from Real Madrid in 2010.
"I found the pace of the game was much quicker as you never had a break," Van der Vaart told ESPN in July. "[In other leagues] you'd take your time over a throw-in, or free-kick, but in England, everyone expects you to continue, continue. That was the hardest thing, but though the game was quick, there was a lot of space to play in between the lines, and as a No. 10 that was great."
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Adaptation takes time, but how much time?
As it became apparent that Van de Beek would have to bide his time at United, sources told ESPN there was already interest shown in him from clubs looking to pick up a potentially disgruntled, ill-suited player for a discounted fee. When the transfer window reopened in January 2021, Solskjaer said he had explained to the player why he was being used sparingly, and reiterated that the player had a long future at United.
While Van de Beek kept working hard, others spoke and ruminated on his behalf as transfer rumours swirled. Ajax legend Sjaak Swart said he would not have stood for being used for four minutes here and there, leaving Van de Beek's then-agent Guido Albers to insist his client was happy at United. Van der Sar, the Ajax CEO and former Man United goalkeeper, also said in January he could understand why Van De Beek was struggling for game time with the midfield logjam of Pogba, Scott McTominay, Fred, Nemanja Matic and the talismanic Bruno Fernandes.
Others were less diplomatic. Legendary Dutch striker Marco van Basten said the 2020-21 season had been "shocking" for Van de Beek's rhythm and that he "shouldn't have joined United." Frans Hoek, who served as goalkeeping coach at United under Louis van Gaal, compared Van de Beek's situation to Depay's ill-fated spell at the club after moving from PSV and the Eredivisie to United, saying that like Depay, he "needed time to adapt."
"Donny has played well the times he got the chance. I think we are too quick sometimes to jump on 'oh, he's not playing, it's a failure,'" Solskjaer said in January. "But with Victor Lindelof and Fred as examples, it takes a little bit of time and now they are massively important players in our squad and in our team, which will be the same with Donny. He will grow more and more for next year."
A muscle injury kept Van de Beek out of action at the start of February and he would make just two starts, playing 262 minutes in the Premier League through the remainder of the 2020-21 season. He was shifted around the team in both the Europa League and FA Cup, too, even starting on the left against Roma in the semifinal second leg against Roma.
"Come on: If there's one thing he isn't, it's a left-winger," Ronald de Boer told ESPN in June. "He doesn't have the speed or creativity for that: He's a team player and needs to be in the middle of the park. That's something the manager should know."
By the time of the Europa League final, Solskjaer's trust in Van de Beek appeared to be rock-bottom, as he was kept on the bench despite United's inability to break through against Villarreal. Van de Beek cut a solitary figure postmatch as United picked through the bones of their tepid defeat on penalties. "It was a very sad," Ronald de Boer said. One source told ESPN that the sight of Van de Beek reminded them of how unhappy and isolated Jesse Lingard looked after their semifinal defeat to Sevilla the previous season.
Last summer's Euros were seen as a "line in the sand" moment for Van de Beek, a chance to reset. He made the original 26-man squad under then-manager Frank de Boer, with Van der Vaart saying at the time: "He was lucky to be nominated. There's so much competition in that position." But then came an untimely groin injury, and Van de Beek was ruled out of the competition.
After further restricted game time at the start of the 2021-22 season -- he didn't play a first-team game until a six-minute cameo at the end of United's 4-1 win vs. Newcastle on Sept. 11 -- Everton came close to securing him on transfer deadline day, sources told ESPN, only for Solskjaer to block the move. Five days later, Van de Beek spoke to ex-Manchester United legend Rio Ferdinand on his FIVE podcast. "I speak with the manager about it and the club," Van de Beek said. "They were clear they wanted me to stay here. The manager was really positive about me and he said, 'I need you and I want to keep you here.'
"Of course, what I see here now in the beginning of the season is difficult, because I didn't play one minute, but he said, 'What I see every day in training, I see a different Donny now.' He was really positive about me and I'm feeling well. He sees a big difference, that I'm a little bit stronger now. He can see that I now have one year experience here in England. If he sees me now and in the beginning, he sees a big difference."
Van de Beek was asked on the podcast whether he could trust Solskjaer with the hope of more first-team football. "I just need to work hard and I hope I can show the people, one day, what I can do," he said.
"You can never promise [game time]. This is football, and I think you can never promise a player if he will play or not. You can train every day hard, but in the end you need game time to show your best shape. If you play once in a month, you cannot show your best." Just 23 days later, he was throwing his chewing gum down from the raised bench at Old Trafford and having to be calmed by his teammates as he remained unused against Villarreal.
The rare loss of composure from Van de Beek was unlike him, yet Solskjaer was typically diplomatic about the show of frustration.
"He knows he is not frozen out," Solskjaer said. "It's Man United and when a headline player is not playing for Man United, it is always going to make headlines. I've got plenty of them every week that don't play, so I don't have any issues with Donny; he knows what he needs to work on, what we want him to work on. He is diligent in his work and he has never ever let his mood affect his team and teammates negatively.
"You have to have that fire in your belly if you're going to make it."
'Perhaps they didn't think clearly about what sort of player they were getting'
Despite United insisting he hadn't been "frozen out," Van de Beek was left out of Louis Van Gaal's first Netherlands squad in September. "I called Donny van de Beek yesterday," Van Gaal said in August. "I told him that he needs to start playing games." He hasn't featured for the national team since.
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It's been a bemusing 16 months for those who know him so well in the Netherlands. ESPN spoke to a couple of sources close to Ajax, and they've been surprised at how little Van de Beek has played but aren't concerned about him.
"His attitude, even after that first season, will still be outstanding. He's mentally strong, and won't be doubting his own ability," said one source. Ronald de Boer, who made 304 appearances for Ajax, coached Van de Beek in the Ajax under-17s and says Van de Beek is a "calm boy ... he doesn't get crazy if things happen, he's a player who won't give up."
One theory is United haven't yet figured out what Van de Beek's best position is, having seen him predominantly as a No. 10 for Ajax during the 2018-19 season, and then a No. 8 behind Hakim Ziyech in 2019-20.
"He can be a very good asset. I think he can play the role of being the more attacking player in a two-man midfield, like [Thomas] Tuchel uses at Chelsea, or if they have one sitting midfielder, he can push ahead," Ronald de Boer said in June. "He makes the runs in behind the striker and scores goals. He knows the right moments to arrive in the 18-yard-box and can finish.
"Donny is like Davy Klaassen, like Jari Litmanen -- he needs the team around him that can help deliver him. He's not a player like Bruno Fernandes, a technical player who can create something out of nothing even if those around him are playing poorly -- no, Donny is a team player. And that's a danger.
"When you go from Ajax for a lot of money, people think he can do miracles. He can do miracles with the team -- he'll make the runs, do the work defensively, one-touch player, he's a real team player. And they have to realise that Donny is depending on the team to help him. Perhaps they didn't think clearly about what sort of player they were getting."
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Sources have told ESPN that Solskjaer was always worried about Van de Beek's defensive discipline and it was telling that against Villarreal, Carrick had to drop Bruno Fernandes to make room in the midfield. According to sources, United are looking to hire a more technical coach to replace Solskjaer -- both in the short and long term -- which should offer Van de Beek more opportunities, but there are no guarantees.
Van de Beek's future will likely be a hot topic running into the January transfer window. In late October he changed agents -- moving from Albers to Ali Dursun, who also looks after Frenkie de Jong and Lindelof, potentially with an eye on moving on in January. His preference is to succeed at Old Trafford and his plans for January will depend heavily on whether things change now that Solskjaer is gone.
Former Manchester United midfielder Paul Ince said he should move in January, while Ferdinand thinks Van de Beek may be "too nice" and that his politeness has led him to not getting the "situation you require for yourself."
With the new money at Newcastle and other teams looking to reinforce their ranks, Van de Beek will be an attractive target with Everton and Wolves linked. The longer he stays in the wilderness, the more likely it is that his stay at United will be marked down as an ill-fitting marriage.
"As nobody will leave, [Donny] needs a bit of luck to get into the starting 11," Van der Vaart says. "He's too good a player to play two seasons on the bench. For me, he needs playing minutes and needs them fast. He's young, but time flies. When you come with high expectations -- it must be really hard for him. A club like Borussia Dortmund was the perfect next step in his career. A club like Manchester United? Maybe the step was too big for him."