Walking across the largely vacant car park at Old Trafford after an entirely forgettable goalless draw with Chelsea, a group of reporters encountered a fresh-faced, blond-haired youngster climbing into a muscular-looking four by four. As he nodded and said hello, it took a moment to register who the forlorn-looking young chap was. It was Donny van de Beek, the forgotten man at Manchester United.
After yet another game in which he was no more than an interested observer, one of the press box wags suggested he increasingly carried the look of a schoolboy who had won a competition to sit on the United bench.
In Holland, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s only occasional use of the former Ajax playmaker is fomenting growing dismay. A national treasure being so sparsely used is seen as nothing less than a snub.
“What was he signed for?” Danny Blind, the former Holland manager, raged after watching him again unemployed against Chelsea. “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 depth?”
It is an intriguing question. One that had all the more pertinence given that Van de Beek’s drive and urgency are precisely the kind of qualities that might have made a difference in this turgid draw, a result that extended United’s inability to win at home to three games, their worst opening sequence since 1972.
Solskjaer’s argument is that Van de Beek will get his chance. Two starts – in both United’s League Cup victories away from home – and five substitute appearances so far this season, he insists, does not justify the growing suggestion that the Dutchman is being wilfully ignored. He is part of a squad who will need to be carefully rotated across an unusually congested season.
Solskjaer also argued that United might have won this game but for the excellence of Edouard Mendy, who twice made superb saves from Marcus Rashford. How Frank Lampard’s blood pressure must have been reduced watching the Senegal international leaping across his goal, rather than the accident-waiting-to-happen that is Kepa Arrizabalaga.
Yet the fact is, those Rashford strikes notwithstanding, instead of being buoyed by two impressive away wins in Newcastle and Paris, United hardly pressurised their visitors. Sure, Chelsea’s front three, expensively assembled from the Bundesliga, were no less anaemic, barely registering a threat on goal. But they were the away side, their attacking drive blunted by their manager in an attempt to seal up the gaps in his defence.
Solskjaer’s United had no such excuse. In the absence of fans, Sir Matt Busby’s old insistence that his players’ principal purpose was to offer entertainment to those hoping for escapism from the drudgery of the working week rang hollow. Most of those watching from home would have switched over to Strictly long before this game stuttered to an end. And who could blame them.
Moreover, given the surfeit of talent on his bench, it was particularly hard to understand why Solskjaer persisted with Daniel James. The winger started at Newcastle, too, and was no less peripheral there. His confidence shot, unsure where to run or what to do when he gets there, he is the bluntest of instruments to lead his manager’s favoured counter-attacking tactic. When Van de Beek replaced him at St James’ Park, there was a sudden injection of verve into the side. Here, we were left to wonder what might have been.
For Solskjaer, the challenge of bringing his away form (five wins from five in the Premier League, Carabao Cup and Champions League) back home is not helped by his next two fixtures at Old Trafford: against RB Leipzig on Wednesday and Arsenal next Sunday.
“We have difficult opponents, that’s true,” he said. “Another two big games, difficult games, but we’ll make sure we’re ready for them. Good preparation, as we always do, and let’s see where we get.”
For many in Holland, the answer is there on his bench. Give Van de Beek a run out and see what rewards might accrue.