Ole Gunnar Solskjaer faces plenty of selection posers with his Manchester United team this weekend, but it’s entirely possible that he could name a bench that includes Donny van de Beek, Paul Pogba, Juan Mata and Edinson Cavani.
A couple of those names are dependant on other factors, such as whether Pogba is promoted back to the starting line-up and if Mason Greenwood returns in place of Mata.
But that quartet – possessing 243 caps for Holland, France, Spain and Uruguay between them – offer significant game-changing ability from the bench, something that has been lacking for too long.
Two of them, in Van de Beek and Cavani are new signings, while Mata’s impressive run of form this season has made him a force in this squad once more. Pogba’s disappointing form has cost him his place in midfield, but he’s been a major influence as a substitute in wins at Newcastle and Paris Saint-Germain this week.
The case of Van de Beek, signed for an initial £35million from Ajax this summer, is perhaps the most intriguing. So far he’s only been a substitute for the five Premier League and Champions League fixtures, starting games with the fringe players in the two Carabao Cup wins.
There is an inevitable settling in period for the 23-year-old, who spent his entire career at Ajax until his departure this summer, but given the demands this season is placing on players he will get starts at some point.
Yet the clamour to see him from the start also misses the point of what he is offering United. The previous season was spent lamenting the lack of quality in reserve in this squad, but Van de Beek’s squad role led plenty to suggest United should have sold Pogba to make room for him.
Ignoring the elephant in the room of Pogba’s future beyond next summer, that would make little immediate sense. Van de Beek might not be starting games at the moment, but he is a major threat to bring on. He’s made significant contributions as a substitute against Crystal Palace, Brighton and Newcastle.
Solskjaer was asked about Van de Beek and his wait for a start in a major competition at his pre-Chelsea press conference today, and touched on the competition he is already providing. That competition has seen Bruno Fernandes continue to excel in the attacking midfield role, while Fred and Scott McTominay have risen to the challenge in the deeper roles this week.
“Donny’s fit enough but of course it’s competition for places, it’s giving him time to settle in and adjust to his new teammates, it’s a new league,” said Solskjaer. “He’s an absolutely top footballer and personality, so humble and hard-working but also, of course, eager to play more. You’ll see him throughout the season, it’s going to be a long, long season and he’s impressed me. You’ll see him.”
That Van de Beek will get a significant number of starts in a season with a schedule as condensed as this is a certainty, but even when he’s not starting he can play a role, by being a major threat to bring off the bench.
He’s already fulfilled that role expertly and his versatility, not just in midfield but in being able to play off the left of the front three as well, is ideal when he is asked to be a substitute.
There is always a clamour to see new signings when they arrive and it’s been a slow-burn introduction for Van de Beek. But that doesn’t mean his first couple of months as a United player haven’t been a success.