When news circulated during the summer of Ole Gunnar Solskjær opting to move towards a 4-3-3 system, fans online celebrated like a new signing at walked through the Old Trafford doors.
For as successful as the Norwegian has been at overturning the squad and establishing a new look Manchester United side, the pivot in the middle of the park continues to cast quite the shadow over the progression of the starting XI. So much so, that there still remains doubts over the side’s ability to win the title, no matter how strong their attacking resources may be.
Often slow and uncreative on the ball, the partnership of Fred and Scott McTominay fails to strike fear in the opposition. The duo drop deep and look to spray balls down the channels, allowing the offensive figures to roam forward and interchange inside the final third.
Two holding midfielders will always naturally conjure up some form of defensive security for those up-top, albeit not in a world-class manner, but it comes at a cost. The lack of movement and recycling of the ball has granted the Red Devils a label in being inefficient against a low block, with opposing teams finding it all too easy to frustrate the men in-front of them.Embed from Getty Images
Although there is no top-class holding midfielder to bring into the XI to alter the model, a change is still required. A change in the shape of Donny van de Beek.
The Dutchman has seemingly become a forgotten man within the ranks, yet to feature this season. Although we are just three games into the new campaign, United did trial until the 55th minute against Southampton, and were staring at a 0-0 draw to Wolves, with just ten minutes left to play. Van de Beek was overlooked on both occasions, despite it being glaringly obvious that an injection of creativity, or even life, in the middle of the park was required.
Bruno Fernandes is currently deemed undroppable – his 68 goal contributions in 83 games since joining the club have established this. There isn’t an opening in this XI for a new.10, but it’s time to roll the dice and give Van de Beek an opportunity next to Fred or Nemanja Matic, and the upcoming game against Newcastle United is the ideal game to make a step forward towards this new blue-print.
The Toon Army have lost two of their opening three league games, conceded 8 goals and averaged 45% possession. A worry over a lack of defensive security shouldn’t outbalance the attacking potential of Van de Beek in this match-up, particularly when we delve deeper into how this Newcastle side operate. The 3-5-2 has been Steve Bruce’s preferred system to start the season – a rigid structure that aims to press high and squeeze the channels, but it has left a gaping hole in the middle.
Their openness was highlighted repeatedly against Aston Villa, as highlighted above. It took one pass from full-back to the surging John McGinn to transition the Claret and Blues into attack, immediately pinning Newcastle back.
Even when sitting deep, the key to unlocking space was obvious to see. Getting the front-runners to exploit the half-spaces and rush into the area overwhelmed Newcastle’s defensive shape, allowing Dean Smith’s men to dictate and pile the pressure on. Southampton replicated a similar style of play in their last outing, forcing a 96th minute penalty by working the ball into these zones.
Such methods play to Van de Beek’s strengths, being a midfielder that is identified for his progressive play. Solskjaer’s first words when welcoming the 24-year-old to the club where that he wanted to see him inside the 16-yard line, specifically praising his timing of movements. The Dutchman likes to push forward and drift between the lines, offering himself as an avenue to those in possession. Whether he collects the ball or not, such a trait creates openings for his teammates, as pockets begin to open. Such positivity breeds attacking fluidity, an aspect that needs introducing to United’s game when they have the ball.
Although his sample size as a Red Devil is minuscule, there is evidence to showcase this ability. On the final game of last season, he made 11 passes inside the final third, registering 66 touches in total whilst playing off Juan Mata. He partnered Matic in a 2-1 victory over Wolves that day, with VDB boasting the joint-highest pass completion rate in the United starting XI with 90%.
There is a quality player there to be utilized, he just needs consistent time to adapt into a midfield.