In the fifth Premier League game of his Manchester United career, Donny van de Beek didn’t get off the bench. He is still awaiting his first league start since a high profile summer switch from Ajax and the ‘flop’ narrative is already being shaped by those failing to see the bigger picture.
United were widely praised for their capture of Van de Beek when it happened. A distraction from the amateurish pursuit of Jadon Sancho, it appeared to be arranged unusually discreetly and then completed quickly and efficiently. The price, an initial £35m rising to a possible £40m, was hailed as a bargain for a goalscoring midfielder of international calibre, and still only 23.
The Dutchman impressed in a behind closed doors friendly against Aston Villa a week before United’s delayed 2020/21 season began. And while he was only a substitute in the opener against Crystal Palace, he still emerged from the bench to score the team’s only goal of the 3-1 defeat.
Van de Beek got the nod in the Carabao Cup against Luton, although he again dropped to the bench for the Premier League clash with Brighton. He regained his place for the Carabao Cup tie against the same opposition a few days later, but the pattern repeated itself in the Premier League.
When he was left as an unused substitute in Saturday’s tight 0-0 draw against a Chelsea side determined to keep a clean sheet at the expense of their own attacking, it was the first time Van de Beek hadn’t featured in a game at all.
United legend Patrice Evra bluntly remarked in his role as a Sky Sports pundit: “Why have we bought him? He’s watching the game from the stand every game. We don’t need him, that’s the truth.”
It has become a major point of debate, with rage already building among fans on social media, while one headline from the Daily Mirror in particular claimed that manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is now facing ‘increasing scrutiny over Donny van de Beek snubs’.
Solskjaer himself calmly stated in response to fresh questioning following Saturday’s omission: “He’ll get his games, don’t worry. It’s easy to say who should be playing and more difficult to say who shouldn’t.”
The United boss doesn’t see it as the major issue it has been billed as, mostly because it isn’t.
Midfield is the one area of the pitch where Solskjaer is actually blessed with decent options beyond the starters. He opted to start with Scott McTominay and Fred against Chelsea, both of whom were good in last week’s Champions League win over Paris Saint-Germain.
Bruno Fernandes is undroppable further forward. He already has seven goals and assists to his name in seven games in all competitions this season and cost more than Van de Beek. The Portuguese being out of the team would actually be a much bigger story.
The competition in midfield is such that Paul Pogba, lagging behind his teammate in terms of match sharpness thanks to an untimely positive coronavirus test at the end of August, also cannot command a starting place at this moment in time. Nemanja Matic hasn’t been involved much this season, while Juan Mata has only come been in the picture since the international break.
In a world dominated by FIFA gaming and hypotheticals, it also too easily forgotten that Van de Beek is adapting to a totally new club, new country and new lifestyle. United fans were spoiled by the unusually instant impact Fernandes made following his January arrival and it is all too common and regrettable that any new signing, at any club, is having to fight off ‘flop’ labels almost immediately.
Fernandes was a rare exception to the rule that new signings, especially from abroad, need time.
It is easier to arrive into a winning team than a developing one, which is why Thiago Alcantara has slotted in more comfortably at Liverpool. But consider the complete non-impact that Fabinho had when he first arrived at Anfield in 2018.
The Brazilian didn’t make his Premier League debut until the ninth game of the season, despite at least being on the bench most weeks, and eventually got his first league start in the tenth. Jurgen Klopp was very open as to the reason why his new £39m midfielder wasn’t playing and it was to give him time to settle. Fabinho was billed a flop, but no one would dare call him that now.
Also consider David Silva, a Manchester City legend when he left the club in August. But it wasn’t exactly plain sailing for the Spaniard when he first arrived in England in the summer of 2010.
Silva made his Premier League debut in the opening weekend of the season, playing all 90 minutes of a 0-0 draw. But he was immediately dropped, temporarily pulled from the scrutiny of the spotlight, and wasn’t put back in the starting XI in the league for over a month.
If Van de Beek isn’t playing more regularly for United by Christmas, especially given the intensity of the congested fixture list, it might be time to start asking questions. Right now, however, it is just a matter of time and patience.