The last time Donny van de Beek jogged down the Old Trafford touchline and heard his name chanted by the Stretford End was a year ago and the dying embers of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s time in charge of Manchester United.
Van de Beek had become a cause celebre for United fans by then, singing his name as a way of protesting against a manager they could never really turn on. For the player, the departure of Solskjaer should have opened up new opportunities.
But it didn’t turn out that way and the £40million midfielder has now essentially been discarded by two United bosses – Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick – the latter barely using him before sanctioning an unfulfilling loan move to Everton in January.
The appointment of his former Ajax manager Erik ten Hag was supposed to be Van de Beek’s chance to finally establish himself at United, but he was peripheral in the first couple of weeks of the season and then has been sidelined for a while with an injury.
He returned with a late cameo against Sheriff Tiraspol on Thursday, however, and was bright enough that his name was chanted by the Stretford End as he warmed up during the win against West Ham on Sunday. He didn’t get on against the Hammers and seeing Scott McTominay and Fred called on ahead of him might have been disappointing, but given the circumstances not surprising.
United had their backs to the wall for most of the second half and with Van de Beek still returning to full fitness, it would have been a risk to put on him in such a physically demanding game.
The 25-year-old will hope to get another run out on Thursday night, when United travel to San Sebastian for their final Europa League group game. Ten Hag’s side have already qualified but the fact they need a two-goal win to top the group and avoid a perilous Europa League play-off in February means a strong starting XI is a certainty.
Van de Beek will hope for an opportunity off the bench to add to his tally of just 34 minutes of competitive action this season, but maybe his biggest chance of the week will come at Villa Park on Sunday.
Bruno Fernandes is suspended for that Premier League game against Aston Villa and his replacement looks to be between either Fred or Van de Beek. Fred impressed when he filled in for Christian Eriksen against Tottenham, but standing in for Fernandes will require a little more in the final third.
That might give Van de Beek hope that a manager he shone under in Amsterdam will turn to him from the start for the first time in Manchester. He struggled to establish himself under Solskjaer partly because he lacked a natural role in the 4-2-3-1 and was never likely to usurp Fernandes.
But the Portuguese playmaker will be a forced absentee at the weekend and with Ten Hag moving towards a 4-3-3, at least when United are in possession and controlling games, that might mean Van de Beek finds himself with a few more opportunities.
The former Ajax manager was asked about Van de Beek’s best role in pre-season and suggested he liked to see him playing an advanced role, which might make him an ideal candidate to replace Fernandes.
“He can do both [sit deep and play high] – I know that from the past. But his best position is his capabilities in the box of the opponent, so playing short behind the striker [is his best role],” said Ten Hag. “He has a really good smell for being in the right position.”
It might still be a surprise if Van de Beek was chosen to start at Villa Park, given he hasn’t started a meaningful Premier League game since December 2020, but Ten Hag was talking his qualities up before the game against West Ham at the weekend.
“When you analyse the season so far, then if he was available he’d get his chance. We need goals and I know Donny is really good in that position to score goals, but he’s also really good in defensive transition,” Ten Hag said then.
Van de Beek’s chances of finding form and favour with United might well be helped by the presence of Casemiro in the midfield now. The Brazilian has given his midfield colleagues a little more freedom thanks to his qualities as a defensive midfielder, something which United were lacking until his £70million arrival from Real Madrid.
Van de Beek wasn’t always comfortable in a double pivot alongside Fred or McTominay, but he could thrive with Casemiro providing the protection.
His best form under Ten Hag at Ajax came when he had a license to get forward and get into the box, scoring goals away at Juventus and Tottenham in the run to the Champions League semi-finals.
That form looks to be a distant memory at the moment, but the conditions for Van de Beek to finally show his best form at United are beginning to fall into place.