After scoring 13 minutes into his debut for Manchester United in the season-opening defeat against Crystal Palace, Donny van de Beek must have thought a starting spot was just around the corner – he was wrong.
The 23-year-old, United’s major summer signing from Ajax in a £40million deal, has played just 48 minutes in the Premier League since and is yet to start in the top-flight, despite the Red Devils’ poor start which leaves them 15th after five matches.
On Saturday, creativity was bereft in an uninspiring goalless stalemate with Chelsea – a game crying out for the Dutchman’s nous, vision and proficiency in the final third.
Donny van de Beek was an unused substitute for Man United against Chelsea on Saturday
The £40m man has been used sparingly by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer so far in the Premier League
Images therefore of Van de Beek sitting idly on the substitutes bench, unused as the rain poured down in Manchester, have had an impact with both supporters and ex-players questioning: why have United bought him, if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer won’t use him?
It is something of a mystery. After his impact against Palace, he played just one minute against Brighton the following week. His only starts have come in Carabao Cup wins against Luton and Brighton while on Saturday, amid a plethora of senior options on the bench, Van de Beek was as fed up as the rest of us.
Solskjaer, speaking before Saturday’s draw, maintained that the Holland international will get his regular chance soon: ‘Donny’s fit enough but it’s competition for places.
DONNY VAN DE BEEK’S MINUTES SO FAR THIS SEASON
19/9: Crystal Palace, 23 minutes (1 goal)
22/9: Luton, 78 mins (EFL Cup)
26/9: Brighton, 1 minute
30/9: Brighton, 90 mins (EFL Cup)
4/10: Tottenham, 22 mins
17/10: Newcastle, 14 mins
20/10: PSG, 2 mins (CL)
24/10: Chelsea, 0 mins
‘It’s a new league and it’s giving him time to settle and adjust to his new team-mates.
‘He’s eager to play more but it’s going to be a long season and you’ll see him.’
However, Patrice Evra could not have been more harsh in his criticism of United’s transfer policy, simply questioning after Saturday’s bore draw: ‘We’re talking about Van de Beek, nothing against the kid, but why have we bought him?’
A sentiment that was echoed by Gary Neville, who added: ‘He doesn’t seem to be at the forefront of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s plans in every game…
‘The more he doesn’t start, and the more he doesn’t come on, the more you’re thinking, “Well £40m player, ordinarily you’d get him in the team”. He must be thinking: “What am I doing here?” at this moment in time.’
Well, as Solskjaer himself has repeated, competition for places in the United midfield and forward areas are high – Van De Beek will have to be patient.
At the weekend, Scott McTominay and Fred – following a dominant display against PSG in midweek – retained their deeper roles, with Paul Pogba also confined to a seat on the bench.
Further ahead, Bruno Fernandes is perhaps the only guaranteed central starter at the moment, in the number 10 role. But it is on either wing where Van de Beek may be thinking, with some justification: ‘Why not me?’
Patrice Evra and Gary Neville have both questioned why Man United signed Van de Beek
Juan Mata and Dan James were the occupants on Saturday and both struggled to make an impact, with the Welsh winger in particular lacking in productivity.
Van de Beek’s prospects of a start are also not helped if Solskjaer decides to resort to a back-three, as he did with great success against PSG last week. That formation means one less spot available in midfield, which does not bode well for the 23-year-old.
However, in the bigger picture of United’s summer transfer window – which aside from Van de Beek, only saw incomings in the final October hours – and their list of priorities, there are questions to answer.
Most pointedly, why did United commit their biggest outlay on a player who – despite his long-term potential – plays in a position which is well-stocked already?
Paul Pogba has also made way in the past week for Scott McTominay and Fred in midfield
Pogba, after the blossoming of his partnership with Bruno Fernandes at the back-end of last season (another duo which has gone AWOL so far this season), was always going to stay, while Van de Beek is not a player who is at his best from a deeper role, breaking up the play.
He made his name at Ajax for being constantly on the front-foot with his aggressive pressing style and once the ball was at his feet in those little pockets between defence and midfield, his quality shone through.
Last season, he scored 10 goals for Ajax and in the season and the year before, when he made his real breakthrough on the European stage as the Dutch champions reached the semi-finals of the Champions League, he hit the back of the net an impressive 19 times.
But, can Van de Beek play in his favoured role with Fernandes in the starting XI? The answer, should Solskjaer persevere with the Portuguese in an advanced role, is no.
Van de Beek was a massive goal threat for Ajax during his last two seasons at the Dutch club
But Bruno Fernandes playing in the number 10 role is not good news for the 23-year-old
Just six weeks into the new season, Dutch footballing legends are already having their doubts: ‘Donny should not have gone to Manchester United,’ said Marco van Basten.
‘When you are a good player you want to play every week. It is really bad for a player like Donny to play only six or seven games this year. That is shocking for your match rhythm.
‘I know he is earning loads and loads more than he used to. But as a top player you have to be critical and look at the chances of playing when you sign for a new club.
‘Donny should have waited for better prospects and signed for another club.’
Marco van Basten has already questioned if Van de Beek should have moved to another club
The notion he should have moved elsewhere is perhaps a tad hasty. After all, with his £108,000-a-week wages and his five-year contract, he is not just an investment for the 2020-21 season – in the same way Edinson Cavani is – but one for the future too.
Barcelona were an option in the summer though, as has been publicised, with a fee agreed with Ajax for his signature and a potential reunion with Frenkie de Jong.
And as Van Basten notes, there are only so many matches Van de Beek can take sitting on the bench for United before rustiness creeps in, patience wears thin and he begins to doubt whether he made the right choice.
In the short-term too, United’s fixtures only get tougher and thus, it is difficult to see where the 23-year-old’s first major start will come from.
How long will Van de Beek retain his place in the Dutch squad without minutes for his club?
The £40m man has not kicked on since his debut goal, but opportunities could soon emerge
After RB Leipzig in the Champions League on Wednesday, United host Arsenal next Sunday before trips to Istanbul Basaksehir and table-toppers Everton before the November international break.
It’s a long season and, no doubt, Van de Beek’s involvement as we head into the busy festive period will increase. But, for now, Solskjaer has been resistant to starting the £40m man despite indifferent results.
When will the United boss decides to chance his arm? Only time will tell. And until he does, questions will remain about the smartness to spend such a high summer sum on a player currently on the fringes.