After thrilling Eredivisie and Champions League campaigns Ajax’s immensely talented young players have come under the radar in the blink of an eye. Barcelona “put their hands” on Frenkie de Jong earlier in the season, whilst their leader Matthijs de Ligt has the interest of the biggest European clubs, all waiting for the decision on his future.
One player that stayed a bit out of the spotlight is Donny van de Beek, although he deserves no less attention than his fellow players. The 22-year-old has proved to be a crucial part of the title-winning team and he often found himself in a great position to give Ajax an extra push.
Playing as a central attacking midfielder he has shown outstanding off the ball movement mixed with strong decision-making and vision, often ending being decisive in important games.
Although he clarified his plans to stay in Amsterdam, there are a few teams that would fit him perfectly. Let’s take Arsenal, who are struggling for players on this position and have no variety on their bench. With Aaron Ramsey’s departure and Mesut Özil’s inconsistent performance, the Gunners won’t be in a good place, as they would experience struggles with delivering balls to the amazing front duo Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
The Londoners desperately need someone with Van de Beek’s qualities as the team was obviously struggling when Özil wasn’t in form and once Ramsey got injured. Having in mind that attacking through the wings is not the best strategy against some of the teams and hides a lot of risks, getting a replacement is a must.
In this tactical analysis, we will analyse the Dutch’s performance and see how someone with his skills could fit into Arsenal’s squad.
Outstanding flair and tactical impact
As already mentioned, Van de Beek is one of the most important players in the Champions League semi-finalists’ squad. Erik ten Hag has used him smartly and the player has adapted his strengths to the team’s strategy in the best possible way, not only performing great on his own but also complementing his teammates’ actions.
He has a natural sense of positioning and his flair of exploiting newly opened spaces is irreplaceable. Ajax’s side have built a great connection between the players and they manage to synchronize perfectly, resulting in a smooth build-up and eye-catching style of play.
We’ve witnessed that Arsenal is able to achieve quite the same results, but only when the connection between the lines is strong and the midfield players have played on their potential. One of the team’s most attractive displays this season have been a result of either Ramsey or Özil, who had a great impact to the whole team’s performance and have functioned effortlessly in the final third.
That is when Van de Beek’s explosiveness could be most useful at – in the final phase of the attack. He could be used as a distraction, dragging defenders out of position/ stretching the defence. But also as the main threat in front of the goal, as his runs to the box are so perfectly timed that could rarely be stopped. He invades the space behind the defenders’ backs in a millisecond and his awareness of the opposition’s players positioning is enviable.
He could also be valuable defensive support as his three interceptions on average per game and 5,2 recoveries per 90 minutes might be perfect for Arsenal’s defensive endeavours. None of Ramsey nor Özil have reached higher numbers. The Gunners are very vulnerable when caught on a counter, and having someone with Van de Beek’s awareness in the more advanced areas could get them out of trouble.
Özil’s lack of defensive contribution is a permanent talking point and having someone that takes some more responsibilities could be a successful strategy. Although, Van de Beek’s weakness is that he is far worse passer than both Özil and Ramsey and he would be less efficient during the build-up. Having someone like Xhaka, who despite the criticism has shown a huge improvement over the season might be enough to help with the distribution to the more advanced areas, whilst Van de Beek is invading the half-spaces, disturbing the opposition’s defence and waiting for the tiniest uncovered spaces he would get in to.
As Lacazette and Aubameyang are usually tightly man-marked, the Dutch would be another option for receiving Sead Kolašinac’s crosses from the left. He also helps with spreading out wide. In Ajax, De Jong was securely covered and most of their opponents were trying to block the central passing lanes. That resulted in Van de Beek having to seek another option for finishing the attack.
Van de Beek vs. Ramsey vs. Ozil
Van de Beek’s passing frequency and accuracy weakness is not a one to be neglected. But he could be used in a role that would allow him to get the most out of it. His average of 30,82 passes with 83% accuracy can’t be compared to Özil’s 54,42 (89,2%) for example, although his role in the Ajax’s game plan was different. Getting a player like the 22-year-old means changing the strategy and stop using the short pass combinations for retaining possession in the final third so frequently. Although it is part of Arsenal’s style of play under Unai Emery, this might not be a bad idea especially against teams with a more conservative low-block defensive strategy.
The classic number 10s are a rarity nowadays, as what managers seek is complexity. An attacking midfielder would have a big amount of defensive responsibilities. But what is important is that an attacking player could contribute defensively not necessarily by dropping back deep in his own half. In Arsenal’s case, Van de Beek’s abilities would be highly appreciated in the early stages of the opposition’s attack. Even though, he would occasionally drop back too, most of the times for picking up the ball from De Jong, not for defensive purposes though.
If we compare the three players’ attacking efforts there is not much difference. Van de Beek has 1.28 shots assists per game, whilst Özil has 1.94 and Ramsey 1.15. When it comes to shooting Ramsey leads the way with 2.06 shots per 90 minutes, followed by the Dutch with 1.84 and the German with 0.54.
Anyway, if Arsenal is looking for covering wider areas, Leicester’s James Maddison might qualify for the position. He’s improved massively and expanded his role for the team, although he could be used as a proof of the aforementioned statement. Maddison increased his defensive efforts throughout the season and tracks the ball back quite often – yet, he has been less efficient than Van de Beek who is used in the final third.
The Gunners’ homegrown Emile Smith-Rowe should not be underestimated too. He has shown a huge improvement and might be the right fit for this position. Being on loan at RB Leipzig was expected to be bigger of a challenge, getting more playing time, but yet it’s a huge step for an 18-year-old.
Van de Beek or not, it is obvious that Emery needs some new additions to fill the gaps left, otherwise, he would meet some struggles with the start of the season.
If you love tactical analysis, then you’ll love the digital magazines from totalfootballanalysis.com – a guaranteed 100+ pages of pure tactical analysis covering topics from the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga and many, many more. Buy your copy of the May issue for just ₤4.99 here, or even better sign up for a ₤50 annual membership (12 monthly issues plus the annual review) right here.