Ole Gunnar Solskjaer left himself short of quality game-changers on the bench in Gdansk but the quantity was there: Juan Mata, Daniel James, Donny van de Beek, and Amad.
The options were not quite Solskjaer and Sheringham but 22 years earlier Sir Alex Ferguson had five fewer substitutes and Jonathan Greening was one of them. Ferguson acted. Solskjaer froze.
Mata signed a new contract on Solskjaer’s watch and James, Van de Beek and Amad are his signings. Amad, still 18, is deemed too raw in meaningful matches and James has often looked like the Championship winger he was when United bought him over the last year.
But Van de Beek is a 24-year-old Dutch international with Champions League semi-final experience. Like Amad, he was only picked to make up the numbers.
The brutal truth is of the 12 substitutes Solskjaer listed in midweek he only intended on using the five who were sent on. Lee Grant was a cheerleader, Dean Henderson unused back-up, Harry Maguire unfit, Brandon Williams and Nemanja Matic mere cover.
Mata emerged to effect the Europa League quarter-final against Copenhagen last year and Solskjaer conceded in February they had missed their lock-picker.
“Against West Brom, you’re thinking, ‘do we have someone there to unlock the door?'” Solskjaer said of the uninspiring 1-1 draw at the Hawthorns. “If we had Juan to create that pass. Because he has done well in the earlier part of the season.”
Van de Beek came on that Valentine’s Day and wilted faster than a bunch of roses. He did not play again for over a month due to injury.
Even as a fluent English speaker, it has not been easy for Van de Beek to settle in a country plagued by a pandemic. Van de Beek has not been able to ease into a social group in the United squad. His girlfriend, Estelle – the daughter of Dennis Bergkamp – was born in England and is at least familiar with the culture
Belatedly, Van de Beek appears to have conceded he is not going to occupy the ’10’ role at United. He enjoyed arguably his most accomplished starting performance for United at Wolves last week from the ‘6’ and that is the position he is going to have to own.
Van de Beek was one of the first besuited players to stride around the Gdansk Stadium pitch on Wednesday night. It is always a giveaway with United that those who are first to scour the landscape are on the bench. The starters are in the dressing room, pulling their socks up and getting their game face on.
Nobody expected Van de Beek to come on, never mind start. The night before, Van de Beek was one of the sharpest in the practice match when he was paired with Paul Pogba.
It was the loudest Van de Beek had been in a season played almost entirely in front of empty stands. He demanded the ball from Dean Henderson and his passing was adventurous. It helped the practice match was borderline non-contact, a possession-based game Van de Beek specialises in from his Ajax tuition.
Pogba is selective with his intensity and is often outperformed at international level by N’Golo Kante. McTominay is more Darren Fletcher than Kante and if United are unable to recruit a defensive midfield upgrade then it is McTominay’s gig.
Pogba has played his best football for United from the left of a midfield three or off the left. If Pogba is around to be accommodated in the current 4-2-3-1 formation, then it has to be on the flank. Where he’s a game-changer.