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No Pogba, no problem? Why Van de Beek is the answer to Madrid’s midfield misery

6:00 PM EDT 8/12/19
Donny van de Beek, Paul Pogba, Real Madrid logo
The Spanish giants have turned to the 22-year-old after seemingly missing out on Paul Pogba this summer

“Donny nog een jaar” went the chant to the tune of the KC & the Sunshine Band hit Baby Give It Up, and it spread rapidly and repeatedly around the Johan Cruijff Arena on Saturday.

Ajax’s dominant display in the 5-0 trouncing of Emmen suggested they can survive in the Eredivisie without Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt, but their fans made clear there is one star they are not ready to let go.

Seconds after Donny van de Beek put the Dutch champions into the lead, the crowd hijacked the 1980s disco classic to beg the 22-year-old to reject an offer from Real Madrid and stay in Amsterdam for another year.

The approach from the Spanish giants was common knowledge, but the supporters had reason to be optimistic.

The Dutch press claim Van de Beek is hesitant due to uncertainty about the role he would have at the Santiago Bernabeu, while the latest reports in Spain say Madrid want to wait until next year to sign him.

Even Van de Beek is unsure if Tuesday’s Champions League qualifying game against PAOK will be his last in an Ajax jersey: “I really can't tell you," he said on Saturday. "I want clarity as well."

Madrid have embarked on a rebuilding project that has cost them over €300 million in this transfer window. Eden Hazard, Luka Jovic, Ferland Mendy, Eder Militao and Rodrygo have all been bought to aid their recovery from a dismal 2018-19 season.

The new signings add the firepower, speed, flair and defensive options they were missing when they plummeted to a third-place finish in La Liga – 19 points behind champions Barcelona, with their lowest goal tally for 19 years and worst defensive record for a decade.

There is, however, one area they haven’t addressed: the midfield.

Madrid identified Paul Pogba as the top target for the position in their bid to complete their spending spree, but Manchester United’s inability - or refusal - to sign a replacement before the window ended in England last Thursday suggests their pursuit has hit a dead end.

In comparison to World Cup winner Pogba, Van de Beek may be a surprise alternative for Zinedine Zidane’s side but the Netherlands international has shown that he may be an adequate and much cheaper solution.

Stuck with the ageing Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro as their midfield trio, Madrid need an injection of youth, pace and especially goals from the centre of the pitch. Last season, Modric and Casemiro struck only four times in all competitions, and Toni Kroos five. Van de Beek scored 17 goals, four of them in the Champions League.

Ajax are four games into the new campaign and Van de Beek already has two goals and three assists to add to the impressive record he has maintained over the last four years.

Since his senior debut in 2015, Van de Beek has progressed steadily into a dangerous attacking midfielder capable of upsetting the strongest defences.

Alongside Bayern Munich, Juventus and Tottenham, Madrid witnessed the threat Van de Beek poses first-hand as his goals and assists against them played a pivotal part in Ajax’s surprise journey to the Champions League semi-finals last season.

Always on the move and available for a pass, Van de Beek puts his good technique and simple but effective passing to good use for a side that is always looking for holes in the opponents’ defence with quick and imaginative combinations.

Keeping his eye on the situation around him, Van de Beek easily identifies big spaces and can drift into them so easily it is as if acres open in front of him. Whether he needs to go wide, drop deep to support the striker or advance to fill in for the No.9, he is always looking to help his side into dangerous positions. He is a direct threat and always seems to pop up at the right place to find the net or set up a team-mate.

After waving goodbye to new Barcelona hero De Jong and Genoa’s Lasse Schone, the Nijkerkerveen native is the last piece of the midfield that helped fire them to the domestic double and Champions League final four.

Erik ten Hag’s team are still in good shape despite the loss of three key players, but Van de Beek’s departure may be one too many if they want to replicate last season's achievements.

"We all hope that Donny stays for another year," Ten Hag told reporters. "With his dynamism, vision and strength in front of goal, he has a crucial role in midfield. Donny has played in the spotlight of the biggest clubs in Europe."

He may not be as high-profile or glamorous as Pogba or other summer target Neymar, but it is no surprise Madrid are chasing a player who does such a good job tying the midfield and attack together.

Van de Beek would offer Zidane's side a dimension they clearly lacked last season. He would help create intricate moves to set up chances for the likes of Hazard, Jovic and Karim Benzema, just like he did for Hakim Ziyech, Dusan Tadic and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.

Pogba and Neymar may be the signings Madrid really want this summer, but as they look to address the glaring issues that caused such a disastrous 2018-19 season, Van de Beek could be the signing they really need.