Sky Sports could have salvaged the stultifying draw between Manchester United and Chelsea in the 82nd minute: mute Gary Neville, switch off the superfluous crowd noise and play Travis’s Why Does It Always Rain On Me.
I can’t sleep tonight
Everybody’s saying everything is alright
Still I can’t close my eyes
I’m seeing a tunnel at the end of all of these lights
Sunny days, where have you gone?
The camera was fixed on Donny van de Beek, sheltered, albeit by the porous south stand roof, and bearing an expression as glum as the Manchester weather. No Premier League start, no Champions League start and against Chelsea he was completely unused.
“What is a little bit of a mystery is the use of Van de Beek since he’s been signed for £40million,” Neville said. “Doesn’t seem to be at the forefront of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s plans in every game. It’s a bit of a mystery, that one.
“The more he doesn’t start, the more he doesn’t come on, the more you’re thinking, ‘a £40m player, ordinarily you’d get him in the team’. He must be thinking, ‘what am I doing here?’ in this moment in time.”
United have another Henrikh Mkhitaryan or Ander Herrera situation brewing, albeit without a box office managerial draw. A forlorn 45 minutes at West Brom in October 2014 convinced Louis van Gaal to discard Herrera, limited to one league start in four months. Ryan Giggs’s confidant Nicky Butt, himself a combative midfielder, expressed misgivings about Herrera before the Spaniard’s recall near-coincided with United’s best form and football under the robotic Van Gaal.
Mkhitaryan, in retrospect, was a Mino Raiola sweetener sandwiched between Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba. Mourinho thought he had recruited a right winger only Mkhitaryan considered himself to be a No.10. He played 29 minutes across 14 games after a catastrophic full debut in the September 2016 derby that ended at half-time.
Mkhitaryan rallied in late November after a heart-to-heart with Mourinho and excelled, climaxing with the Europa League final clincher against Ajax. Yet the Europa League specialist was Europa League standard and Mkhitaryan’s face just did not fit. His stats-padding assists masked a dismal performance level before he was swapped for the weathered Alexis Sanchez.
Van de Beek-Solskjaer does not have the same edge, even with the ingredients of famed Dutch arrogance. Van de Beek, 23, has switched from a league where Ajax just denuded VVV 13 (THIRTEEN)-0 to the intensity of the Premier League, itself laden with madcap results this term.
Herrera and Mkhitaryan became influential after enforced periods of adaptation and Van de Beek, boasting greater Champions League pedigree than Bruno Fernandes, is still primed to succeed. Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong, Van de Beek’s blond brothers in Amsterdam, required some bedding in at Juventus and Barcelona last year.
It was at least apparent Barca and Juve wanted them. However United have dressed it up with Van de Beek, he was not their first choice and there was a giveaway in the Carabao Cup tie at Brighton – his last start – when he popped up on the left flank. A la Jack Grealish.
Grealish, Van de Beek and James Maddison were shortlisted as United’s playmaker options in January. Grealish and Maddison are near-identical – early 20-something Premier League specialists regarded as playmakers but adept at drifting in from the left. Van de Beek is more versatile in that he is comfortable at the apex or base of midfield.
WyScout data shows Van de Beek has popped up on the left only six times in his career and two of those were with United. “What was he signed for?” Danny Blind lamented on Dutch television. “I listened to Solskjaer’s press conference and he had nothing but praise for Donny. Yet he did not even give him a brief cameo. He bought him to beef up the squad. Why not use that squad depth?”
United were outpriced for the £80million-rated Grealish after he secured Aston Villa’s top-flight status and paid half that amount for Van de Beek. That they took half a transfer window to sew up the deal when there was a free run after Real Madrid decided against spending amid the pandemic was suspicious.
Van de Beek’s omission from the XI against Chelsea was not a surprise and, as the game developed, the likelihood of an appearance gradually subsided. Solskjaer’s substitutions were logical and attack-minded but it is an issue that the only major midfielder yet to start in the Premier League or Champions League for United is their summer signing.
In three of his four league cameos, Van de Beek scored and had influential roles in United’s away-day winners. Solskjaer bristled at being questioned about Van de Beek’s absence from the line-up at Newcastle but is making a mountain out of a molehill.
“Why did we buy Van de Beek?” Patrice Evra harrumphed. “I have nothing against him. He’s watching the game from the stands. We don’t need him. Nobody will say it but that’s the truth.” You would never have guessed Tonton Pat is Paul Pogba’s mentor. Van de Beek is a direct threat to Pogba, eager to relocate to Spain next year, and United have offset his possible departure with Van de Beek and Fernandes.
United showed teeth by extending Pogba’s contract earlier than anticipated this month and finally dropping him. He still emerged before Van de Beek against Newcastle, Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea and a recall seems inevitable sooner rather than later.
“He’s getting better and better and maybe more his shape,” Solskjaer said of Pogba. “Maybe I was unfair to him starting him that early in the first few games but he’s coming on and he’s done great when he’s come on.”
It does not rain but it pours on Van de Beek.