There was a moment early in the second half of this game when Michael Carrick shouted across to Donny van de Beek to drag him into the middle of Manchester United’s attack, having seen the Dutchman drift across to the right-hand side.
It was a sign of the balance being sought all night, between Van de Beek making his presence felt in the ‘Bruno Fernandes role’ and finding enough time and space to get on the ball.
This felt like a violinist turning up to play with a heavy metal band. Van de Beek was on a totally different wavelength to his teammates, which meant they barely connected all night. While Van de Beek wanted the symphony of the orchestra, his colleagues wanted the pulsating beat of rock, or Bruno Fernandes, as they tend to call him.
Van de Beek might not have had much playing time since his £35million move from Ajax but we’ve seen enough now to realise he is a very different player to Fernandes. While the Portuguese playmaker is unmissable thanks to his energy and drive, Van de Beek is more about subtle movements into space and clever link-up play.
But to perform that function you need space and a defensive West Ham side denied United any, leaving Van de Beek to go looking for it. At one point late in the first-half he was deeper than Aaron Wan-Bissaka in the right-back role looking for the ball.
This is the kind of game where it might have suited Van de Beek to operate in a deeper role rather than throwing his blend of intricate touches and desire for freedom and movement into a congested area of the pitch.
He struggled to have any meaningful impact on the game and it was no surprise his number was up when Fernandes came on with 17 minutes of normal time remaining, Van de Beek’s pensive glare over at the technical area waiting for Mike Phelan to raise the fourth officials’ board was the look of a man who knew another game had gone by without making a significant impact.
The £35million United spent on Van de Beek in the summer looked an opportunistic signing, taking advantage of Real Madrid’s dwindling interest in the Holland international amid their financial hit during the pandemic to sign a technically excellent 23-year-old who has already experienced the game at the highest level.
But Van de Beek has looked out of place since his arrival and while the hope will be that he can improve for a first season at the club and a normal pre-season in the summer, his form could present United with another dilemma.
His flexibility and Ajax upbringing means he can play in a deeper midfield role as well as further forward, but right now he neither looks like an ideal back-up for Fernandes or a long-term replacement for Paul Pogba, who is expected to leave in the summer. His technical proficiency is beyond doubt, but his suitability is not.
Pogba’s form recently has shown what big boots his will be to fill, even if United have coped with his slumps in performances previously. Solskjaer would have hoped Van de Beek’s arrival would offset the expected departure of Pogba, but as things stand that isn’t happening.
Time is still on Van de Beek’s side. He has only just clocked up 1,000 minutes in a United shirt, but at the moment he looks like a player out of tune with his teammates.
When Fernandes came on United’s tempo went up. It hardly went night from Last Night of the Proms to Stone Roses at Heaton Park, but there was a gear shift that had been missing for 70 minutes.