Erik ten Hag wants Frenkie de Jong to inspire an Old Trafford revival but they should be wary
Of all the mistakes Manchester United have made in the transfer market since Alex Ferguson retired nine years ago, few dealings have tended to elicit as much regret internally as the summers of 2014 and 2015, when the club placed their faith in their straight-talking Dutch manager and paid a heavy price.
From Robert Lewandowski, Neymar and Thomas Muller to Sadio Mane, N’Golo Kante and Sergio Ramos, Louis van Gaal has been unafraid to reel off the list of players he wanted to bring to Old Trafford but less willing to reflect on the litany of flops he ended up buying.
Amid the costly gambles on youth (Anthony Martial), experience (Bastian Schweinsteiger) and reputation (Radamel Falcao), United also invested in players who were simply not up to the job, including Morgan Schneiderlin, Matteo Darmian and Marcos Rojo.
But it was Van Gaal’s recruitment of Daley Blind, Memphis Depay and Angel Di Maria that is the most interesting talking point now that United are again putting their trust in a Dutch manager with a powerful voice and a very clear idea of how he wants to do things.
Erik ten Hag has made an encouraging start as United manager but the success of his planned rebuild will depend as much on who he brings in as his innovation on the training ground and, in that regard, fans will hope history does not repeat itself as he treads what for now appears a similar path to Van Gaal.
Effectively forced out at Real Madrid, only three months after being named man of the match in their Champions League final triumph over Atletico Madrid in May 2014, Di Maria never really gave the impression of wanting to move to United and, within less than a year, he was gone. United may well end up signing Frenkie de Jong and, unlike the personality clash between Van Gaal and Di Maria, the Netherlands midfielder at least has the experience of working successfully under Ten Hag at Ajax.
Yet the reality is that De Jong is being ousted against his will at Barcelona and has shown little appetite to leave for Manchester. Perhaps that will change once he has experienced United’s warm embrace but it seems a risky starting base for a club who have made a big deal privately about only wanting players who are eager to come.
Di Maria, equally, never got to grips with the Premier League and, while Ten Hag is convinced De Jong is precisely what he needs, United observers will hope he fares a whole lot better than the last Dutch midfielder they brought to the club.
Donny van de Beek has endured a miserable two years at Old Trafford since his £35m move from Ajax in 2020 but is the latest in a long line of players plucked straight from the Dutch Eredivisie who have found the pace, physicality and intensity of the Premier League too much to handle.
It was the same with Blind and Depay, signed from Ajax and PSV Eindhoven respectively by Van Gaal in the same summer, as Di Maria, but it has not stopped United, at Ten Hag’s insistence, going down that route again this summer. Tyrell Malacia, the Netherlands left-back, has been signed from Feyenoord for £14.6m (€17m) and Argentina defender Lisandro Martinez will complete a £46m (€54m) move from Ajax once he has had a medical and obtained a visa. United are also pursuing another of Ten Hag’s former Ajax players, Brazil forward Antony.
The moves, of course, could be handsomely vindicated and Ten Hag certainly knows those players better than anyone, but it has the look of a club putting all their eggs in one basket when it is hard to believe the recruitment lists United’s scouting department were originally compiling over the past 12 months were laden with players from the Dutch top flight.
Only two players who have moved directly from the Eredivisie to the Premier League over the past decade have been standout successes: Georgino Wijnaldum, who left PSV for Newcastle in 2015 before joining Liverpool a year later, and Christian Eriksen. The last time it worked out for United was 2005, when Park Ji Sung arrived from PSV. Virgil van Dijk is the most successful Dutch player currently in the Premier League but even the formidable Liverpool centre-half did not arrive directly, instead plying his trade with Celtic before joining Southampton.
Toby Alderweireld had the experience of a year in Spain with Atletico Madrid and a season on loan at Southampton before the former Ajax defender transferred to Tottenham in 2015.
Eriksen, who joined Spurs from Ajax in 2013 and spent seven years in north London before a move to Inter Milan, has of course now completed a free transfer to United. His recovery from the cardiac arrest he suffered playing for Denmark at the European Championship last summer has been remarkable and his form for Brentford in the final few months of last season offered a reminder of his vision, creativity and intelligence on the ball, qualities Ten Hag is desperate to add.
There are numerous other players with promise who moved from the Eredivisie to England who have been decent, such as Dusan Tadic, Nacer Chadli, Davinson Sanchez, Hakim Ziyech, Maya Yoshida, Steven Bergwijn, Erik Pieters, Leroy Fer, Daryl Janmaat and Davy Propper, even if not all lasted the course. But it is arguably easier to list the many players who could not handle the difficult, direct transition, including Siem de Jong, Ron Vlaar and Marko van Ginkel among many others.
The reality is that the Netherlands has simply not provided the same fertile hunting ground for Premier League clubs in recent years as fellow European countries such as Portugal and France. They are faster, more physical leagues with a deeper pool of players given the success and greater ease with which they have more generally drawn talents from South America and Africa, respectively.
Maybe Ten Hag will buck the trend and the Dutch influence at Old Trafford will underpin a transformation but it will need to be a lot more successful than it was under Van Gaal.
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