It has been 696 days since Donny van de Beek last started a meaningful Premier League match for Manchester United and he was hooked at half-time that day with United a goal down. They beat West Ham 3-1.
Van de Beek’s only other starts in the league were in May 2021 against Leicester and Wolves. The former was staged two days before the rearranged fixture with Liverpool, so Ole Gunnar Solskjaer rotated en masse, and he did likewise at Molineux as the Europa League final was three days later.
At Villa Park on Sunday, it will have been 701 days and the wait may go on for Van de Beek. Bruno Fernandes is suspended and Van de Beek would be the natural replacement, only the Dutchman has missed six weeks of the season.
Two months of Van de Beek’s loan spell at Everton were written off due to a thigh injury and when Paul Pogba twinged his hamstring in February 2021, Van de Beek also succumbed to injury. He was out for a month.
That was as badly-timed as Phil Leotardo’s heart attack in The Sopranos. Van de Beek could have had his turn in the “driver’s seat” yet his body wasn’t ready. Van de Beek’s card was perhaps marked by some the moment he sought the exit route of Everton last summer.
Remarkably, Van de Beek will have to wait longer for a start under the coach who made him this season than he did when his scourge Solskjaer was manager. Almost as remarkable is the adoration United supporters shower Van de Beek with whenever he warms up before returning to the bench.
It must be charitable or reputational. Radamel Falcao and Bastian Schweinsteiger were revered more ardently than players who actually won things with United. Edinson Cavani would pick and choose when he played, extending getaways in Montevideo, yet was still serenaded.
Fernandes has earned the rock star treatment but he is a conundrum. He has been at his best for United with turnstiles locked and looks stricken whenever he shares the pitch with Cristiano Ronaldo.
Since it emerged some felt Ronaldo’s presence harmed Fernandes’s own impact, the difference has been as stark as night and day. Against Tottenham and Chelsea, Ronaldo was unused, Fernandes scored and Chelsea were unlocked twice in the first-half. With Ronaldo recalled, Fernandes was cowed. He has also been relocated to the wing twice in the last three games.
During pre-season, Fernandes bristled at a query over whether he would have to adapt his game to be more aligned with Erik ten Hag’s approach. He misheard ‘tweak’ as ‘weaken’.
“I don’t understand that type of question of keeping the ball or whatever it is. I keep the ball when I think I have to keep it, I try a pass when I think I have to do it and sometimes it goes good, sometimes wrong.
“Obviously, when it goes wrong, I know that shouldn’t be the one, but sometimes when you play in the 10 position you have only a few seconds to think and control the ball and make the pass, so it’s not that much time to think.
“I understand of course, that someone has his own opinion, but when I arrived in 2020 I was losing the same amount of balls in those six months and then the year after I lost the same amount of balls, but I scored 28 goals, so people don’t complain about that. Now last season, because I scored only 10, because for some people it’s only 10 goals, people start complaining.”
There is a misconception Fernandes is under-appreciated by some as his numbers are low and were depressed last season from his first 18 months in Manchester. When he was racking up 28 goals and 17 assists, his performance level was still noticeably problematic and his game has not evolved.
Sandwiched between Harry Maguire’s goal-saving block and David de Gea’s goal-saving denial of Declan Rice in stoppage-time, Fernandes infuriated 70,000 fans by turning attack into defence.
His impulsive reaction to ceding the ball was to open his palms and demand why Casemiro had sped down. He would have discovered the answer if he had glanced at the scoreboard that showed the 90 minutes were up.
Fred had charged down the left and was the obvious pass. Had he received the ball, United would have had a three-vs-two in West Ham’s third. Fernandes has become synonymous with such looseness, the risk-taker unable to dial down to risk-aversive.
Christian Eriksen had been replaced by Fred. Eriksen’s pass completion trumps Fernandes for short and medium passes but, somewhat surprisingly, not long balls (measured as over 30 yards). Eriksen has attempted 141 to Fernandes’s 122 and there is not a glaring disparity comparing their passing statistics (although Eriksen started two fewer games in the Premier League).
What Eriksen does not do is nearly effective as what he does do. He seldom wastes a pass as execrably as Fernandes and his importance has been so immediate no right-minded United fan is pining for another pursuit of Frenkie de Jong.
Fred, Casemiro and Eriksen have only started together once, against Thursday night’s opponents Real Sociedad on a sombre and surreal evening in September. Ten Hag erred by playing Fred as the 10 and removing Eriksen in a pre-planned change at the pause.
With those three, United have a natural 6, 8 and 10 that can shape-shift from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3. The flexible Eriksen flourished as a playmaker for Tottenham and he is yet to play there for United.
Van de Beek’s wait might go on.