Don’t be fooled by the notion that Manchester United’s season-ending victory at Wolverhampton on Sunday was in any way easy.
In fact, the circumstances actually made it harder for United than it may otherwise have been — partially out of their own making, due to the need to rest players. But the fact this was fortress Molineux, with fans back for the first and only time in the 2020/21 season, this was Wolves bidding farewell to their beloved manager and that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made 10 changes to his team ought to mean extra credit for United.
Solskjaer’s side had not won in four previous visits to Molineux and their results against Nuno Espirito Santo’s Wolves in general have been poor. They had won just once in seven attempts before doing the double over the Midlanders this season.
So the performances of fringe players take Donny van de Beek, Alex Telles and Axel Tuanzebe — not to mention the army of youngsters who grasped their opportunities against Wolves — deserve praise.
Solskjaer said he was wary the changes he made to his team might have put United’s unbeaten away record in jeopardy, but he need not have worried.
He said: “We knew by making these changes we’d take a risk of losing that record but they did everyone proud, it was a fantastic performance.”
It was previously thought the Dutchman wasn’t reliable enough to play as one of two shuttling central midfielders in Solskjaer’s preferred 4-2-3-1.
And the fact he started at Wolves in the first place, while Fred and Scott McTominay put their feet up for Wednesday night’s showdown in Gdansk, wasn’t the place Van de Beek really wanted to be. It was a reflection of his disappointing United career to this point.
But instead of sulking, resting his chin on his chest and ticking down the minutes until his forgettable debut season was over, Van de Beek stood tall. He ran the show against Wolves, beautifully linking defence and attack with a string of silky touches and intuitive passes.
He cleverly won the penalty that Juan Mata converted to give United the three points. He defended diligently and didn’t stop running, the way a ‘proper’ central midfielder should do in this formation.
Previous considerations that Van de Beek was a No.10 and nothing else can now firmly be put to bed.
So while Van de Beek was never going to displace Fernandes in that role, he certainly deserves more opportunities to challenge the Fred and McTominay duopoly in the deeper positions.
The little and large pairing are Solskjaer favourites, dependable and industrious and offering protection for the United back four. They will start the Europa League final against Villarreal — with Van de Beek’s return to form coming just too late in the day — and they will likely start next season as the two incumbents in front of the defence.
Van de Beek showed glimpses of both the solid and the spectacular against Wolves. He just needs the opportunity to showcase his skills in pre-season and early in the 2021/22 campaign, hopefully after performing for the Netherlands in this summer’s European Championship.
It’s been a tough year, but the 24-year-old may finally be maturing into a Manchester United player of substance, if he’s given the right role.