Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer gave Donny van de Beek a rare start against Watford on Saturday night, but he is risking his career if his boss continues to favour Paul Pogba in the league.
Van de Beek was an adequate presence against Watford with enough neat touches to have been one of the better players on the pitch, but as the season progresses the flashes of excellence that the Dutch youngster has shown have become less frequent. The lack of opportunity afforded to the former Ajax player is hard to justify, especially alongside some of Solskjaer’s other decisions.
Solskjaer has repeatedly favoured Pogba over Van de Beek during the first half of the season, with the Frenchman starting nine games in the league (with four as a sub), and Van de Beek starting just twice (with seven more appearances from the bench). They have both played 21 times for the club this season but it is clear that Pogba has been given the chance to impress on more occasions.
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In fairness to Pogba, he has improved his performances over his last few games, but that comes against a backdrop of three and a half years of disappointment. Pogba continues to underperform and for much of his Old Trafford career he has been one of the club’s very worst players. His slow play in front of the defence invites danger, and his failure to make the most of exceptional ability means other players are not getting the chances they deserve.
Donny van de Beek replaces Paul Pogba
Image credit: Getty Images
Compare that to Van de Beek. He comes with years of improvement and effectiveness at Ajax, and has impressed in the Champions League more often than Pogba has done in his time with both Manchester United and Juventus. There is always a case that a new signing should justify displacing an existing player, but on the strength of the evidence, Van de Beek’s starting place should have been his to lose as soon as he was integrated into the squad.
There have been no reports of the player failing to impress in training, nor any rumours of an attitude problem. While at the same time, Pogba has stayed mute while Mino Raiola has almost constantly agitated for a move away for his client and made it clear that the 27-year-old World Cup winner has no interest in remaining at the club. Fair enough, that’s the gift of an agent, but his player should not be rewarded with more chances when he is a human handbrake.
Solskjaer is taking a risk with what looks to be belligerence to his new signing. Van de Beek was wanted by better clubs with better managers, such as Spurs, and he was expected to join Real Madrid before the coronavirus clattered the Spanish club’s finances. There will probably be no shortage of takers in the summer if he continues to deny what was once a promising player a chance to develop his potential and career. He does not appear to be a player motivated by money alone, rather he is keen to make the most of his talent, and Edwin van der Sar was moved to ask United and its fans to take care of the player once he had arrived. There have been no fans to fulfil that request, but Solskjaer has clearly ignored it.
Footballers have short careers, and it does not take much to put them off their stride. Personal problems can derail a whole season, failed moves can kill a player’s momentum. Disagreements with managers can lead to an extended stay on a naughty step or they can be left to grow stale with the reserves. Solskjaer has taken a player with the skills to surpass Pogba’s indifferent contribution and left him to wonder what he is doing with his career.
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Given Pogba is set to move on in the summer as United need to sell in order to avoid losing him for nothing, now is the perfect chance to phase him out and give Van de Beek the chance to take over. To be ready to hit the ground running next season, and perhaps to demonstrate to others in the squad that poor performances will not be rewarded. This appears to be one of Solskjaer’s biggest weaknesses, and it’s exacerbated by Ed Woodward’s approaches to contracts.
Luke Shaw, Jesse Lingard, Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo and indeed Pogba - none of them should still be at the club. That they were indulged with huge wages on extended stays, and only occasionally banished from the first team, fosters a culture of complacency at a club that can rarely hold its concentration or its nerve. Van de Beek could be the latest victim.