Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had made his last changes. Manchester United were down to 10 men and down 5-0 at Old Trafford to Liverpool. He had switched to a 5-3-1 formation. He had brought on Edinson Cavani, scorer of 423 goals in a glorious career. To play, seemingly, in midfield.
Cavani was tasked with joining Cristiano Ronaldo in attack when United had the ball and retreating into midfield when they did not; unlike many of his teammates, his was a valiant attempt. But it summed up Donny van de Beek’s fortunes that he was overlooked again.
It was another indignity that Cavani has spent more time in United’s midfield than Van de Beek in the Premier League this season: the Dutchman has been rationed to five minutes against Newcastle United. His Champions League campaign consists of 45 minutes before he was hauled off at half time against Young Boys of Bern. He lasted the duration against West Ham in the League Cup, but United’s early exit meant there was no chance for a sequel this week. Nor does he get international football, with a lack of minutes at club level meaning he has been dropped by Netherlands manager Louis van Gaal.
United pulled the plug on a potential loan move to Everton, but have scarcely used him since then and Van de Beek has reportedly changed agent this week in a bid to extricate himself from Old Trafford. Perhaps, more than most, he could be forgiven for hoping Solskjaer’s reign is curtailed. Certainly, there feel few circumstances when the Norwegian turns to the Dutchman. The enduring image of Van de Beek’s season to date was of him throwing his chewing gum to the ground in annoyance when Solskjaer made his final substitution against Villarreal. Needless to say, it was not him.
“I understand Donny, he is frustrated and disappointed,” the United manager said subsequently. That frustration may stem from the sense that United don’t appear to know where or how to use him. Most Solskjaer signings have been earmarked for a role. Van de Beek was occasionally used on the right last season, before they had a surfeit of wingers. He felt the alternative No 10, at best a part-time role when the indispensable Bruno Fernandes was overplayed. Van de Beek himself has argued he often played for Ajax deeper in midfield, but Solskjaer’s preference for Scott McTominay and Fred as the defensive axis, or Paul Pogba for added creativity, is clear. Perhaps the Ajax academy product needs a side with a distinct ethos, whereas United can seem more a group of individuals.
Rewind to last December and an apparently retired Van Gaal bluntly said that Van de Beek had made the wrong choice in moving to Old Trafford. “There are so many teams where Van de Beek would look better than at United,” said the former United manager.
Maybe Real Madrid was one of them. He was expected to head to the Spanish capital before the financial problems caused by coronavirus meant Real lacked the funds. United may have been opportunistic in capitalising on others’ problems to swoop but a coup without a plan was no coup at all. He has become their £40 million white elephant, starting just four of their 47 Premier League games since he signed.
At a time when the midfield is the weakest department of the team, when Fred and McTominay have looked outclassed, when Pogba is suspended and Nemanja Matic in decline, it still seems unlikely that Van de Beek will get his chance. He appears a player waiting for a new era: either at Old Trafford or elsewhere.