Many Manchester United fans wondered what Donny van de Beek was thinking as the television cameras zoomed in on the Netherlands international as he sat in the stands at the Amex Stadium on Saturday lunchtime.
For the second consecutive game, the club’s only summer signing was starting on the bench – in spite of the fact that he had scored on his debut the weekend before.
Just 24 hours before the Brighton clash, manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had called criticism of United’s activity during the transfer window as “disrespectful”, as he felt it overlooked the significance of Van de Beek’s arrival from Ajax.
“He is a top player and he strengthens our team,” Solskjaer argued.
In addition, when the Van de Beek deal had been confirmed, the Norwegian had enthused, “His ability to see space, time his movements and read the game will really complement the qualities that we have in midfield.”
So, why, then, did Solskjaer leave Van de Beek on the bench until the 90th minute of a tight game with Brighton in which United struggled throughout to break down Graham Potter’s well-organised side.
That move felt more disrespectful of Van de Beek’s talent than any attack on United’s recruitment policy. Indeed, it was not in the least bit surprising to hear the 23-year-old’s agent, Sjaak Swart, publicly expressing his disappointment with Solskjaer’s decision to afford his client just four minutes of action.
There was undoubtedly logic behind Solskjaer’s team selection. He picked the same XI that had won convincingly at the Amex in June but their performance on Saturday couldn’t have been further from that dominant display.
Brighton had learnt from the mistakes they made during the summer, working out how to halt United’s impressive counterattacking machine.
With Solskjaer’s side lacking sharpness and full fitness, having only just returned to training a couple of weeks earlier, they didn’t have the requisite energy and dynamism to deal with the home side’s low block and aggressive press.
In the past, Solskjaer hasn’t had a plan B, a player he believes is capable of coming off the bench and altering the flow of a game. His insistence on sticking with the same players week in, week out, was, therefore, understandable.
He had no such excuse on Saturday, though, with a £35 million ($46m) summer signing sat freezing in the stands.
There weren’t many gaps to be found in between Brighton’s back five but Van de Beek’s vision and clever movement would have added much-needed variety to United’s attacking play, which had been painfully one-dimensional, again utterly reliant on the pace of the front three.
Paul Pogba personified United’s general sluggishness and sloppiness.
In fairness to the Frenchman, he has had even less time to prepare than his team-mates after a positive Covid-19 test required him to self-isolate for 14 days.
However, his first two Premier League appearances of the season so far have been sub-par, with the World Cup winner contributing very little in the dismal 3-1 loss to Palace or the fortuitous 3-2 win over Brighton.
In both fixtures, Pogba passed the ball more poorly than any other member of United’s starting XI. In the season-opener at Old Trafford his pass success rate was 73.5 per cent and he fared even worse at Brighton (67.6%), where he lost possession 15 times – more than anyone else in the team.
Brighton exploited the space left by the former Juventus ace in between midfield and defence, meaning he was constantly left chasing opponents, resulting in the 27-year-old conceding four fouls – again, the most by anyone in Solskjaer’s side.
Surely, then, Van de Beek would have been a better option, particularly when it became clear before the hour mark that Pogba was again running on empty?
There’s a strong argument to be made that the Dutchman is better than Pogba from a defensive perspective, anyway, but certainly at the moment he is fresher than the France international, having had over a month’s break in the off-season.
Solskjaer has been asked about how he fits Pogba, Fernandes and Van de Beek in the same XI and with all three favouring a similar position, and it remains an unanswered question.
However, for now, it looks like rotation will be key to United getting through the next couple of games.
Van de Beek is expected to get another start in the League Cup when United meet Brighton again on Wednesday night.
An impressive showing would give him an excellent chance of holding on to his place for Sunday’s Premier League meeting with Tottenham because, on the evidence of the season so far, Van de Beek is a better option for United’s midfield right now than Pogba.