Neil Humphreys: Solskjaer can kill two birds with one diamond
Van de Beek shows potential with polished showing
The near silence was golden for Donny van de Beek. An empty stadium allowed every coaching instruction to reach the Manchester United midfielder.
|MAN UNITED||PARIS ST GERMAIN|
And the words were mostly positive.
The more they shouted, the more he belonged. Van de Beek finally looks at home.
He came of age at St Mary's last Sunday, playing an understated but important role in United's dramatic 3-2 comeback win against Southampton.
The Dutchman has surely earned his chance to face Paris Saint-Germain and confirm the Red Devils' safe passage into the Champions League last 16 tomorrow morning (Singapore time).
His performance against the Saints, dutifully carrying out every defensive instruction barked at him from the touchline, demonstrated not only his undoubted talent but also his tenacity.
The two qualities came together on the left side of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's diamond, particularly in the second half when van de Beek pushed forward.
Diamonds may be the manager's best friend as they accommodate both his and Bruno Fernandes' attributes.
Critical voices have lamented the apparent inability of two influential, creative midfielders to play identical roles, offering a fresh twist on the Steven Gerrard-Frank Lampard narrative.
Graeme Souness was adamant that the Red Devils had erred in spending £35 million (S$62.6m) on a second No. 10, an unnecessary indulgence when other areas of the pitch were in need of urgent repair.
Dutch legend Marco van Basten went a step further, insisting that van de Beek was wasting his time at Old Trafford.
A product of Ajax Amsterdam's famed academy, van de Beek had arguably doubled his salary but halved his playing time at United, according to van Basten.
Considering van de Beek has already established himself as the conductor-in-chief for Holland, both the player and his country were going to suffer at the hands of United's dithering coaching staff.
But there was no dithering against Southampton, only decisiveness. Solskjaer appears to have other plans for van de Beek.
He's found a replacement for that lost cause.
Whether Solskjaer originally planned on van de Beek succeeding the unsettled Paul Pogba is a moot point now. Pogba wants out. The industrious van de Beek seems willing to try anything to stay in.
So he took one for the team and accepted added defensive responsibilities on the left side of a diamond that allowed some freedom of movement, if not as much as the roaming Fernandes.
With Nemanja Matic and Fred doing most of the fetching and carrying, van de Beek came closest to playing the kind of box-to-box football that he has coveted since his arrival.
The 23-year-old's statistics were steady, rather than outstanding. Winning four tackles and completing 82.6 per cent of his passes do not suggest an imperious showing, but a rising newcomer coming to grips with a packed midfield and the physical intensity of a new league.
After the game, van de Beek posted an Instagram photo of his puffy, swollen ankle with a refreshingly tongue-in-cheek message - Welcome to the Premier League.
His quiet determination is certainly a welcome antidote to the histrionics and public pouting that have blighted United's midfield in recent seasons.
As van de Beek absorbed the instructions from the bench, his game became more clearly defined against Southampton. He supported Fernandes. He tried to find Marcus Rashford. He dropped back to support the ailing Alex Telles.
In other words, he showcased a level of discipline and restraint that has generally eluded Pogba in his second spell at Old Trafford.
A similarly controlled effort should do the trick against PSG, considering only a point is required to ensure qualification.
But, in the long term, Solskjaer might have stumbled upon a solution to his midfield congestion and a tactical alternative.
The Norwegian continues to wallow in the nostalgia of his playing pomp, to reaffirm his connection to the club, but he hasn't managed to replicate the speed and width along the flanks.
Despite Solskjaer's adoration of all things from the '90s, his retro sensibilities haven't served him well with wingers.
But his current midfield formation makes the most of available resources, instead of persisting with wingless wonders. The line-up also opens space on the left for van de Beek and lays the groundwork for Pogba's departure.
In other words, Solskjaer can kill two birds with one diamond.