Donny van de Beek is running out of time to save his Manchester United career

Donny van de Beek during Manchester United’s defeat by Aston Villa

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You wait an age for a meaningful Donny van de Beek start and then two come along at once.

For the first time in nearly two years, Van de Beek was named in consecutive Manchester United starting line-ups. It was the only the second time that has happened since his £35.7m move from Ajax five transfer windows ago. In this third season of one of the more perplexing Old Trafford careers of the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era, this is now his joint-longest streak of appearances from the off.

But after a quiet display in Sunday’s 3-1 defeat at Aston Villa, having also struggled to make an impact in San Sebastián earlier in the week, there is unfortunately every chance that Van de Beek will extend his run of starts one game further. It would not be a surprise if he walks out for United’s next engagement, only this time as part of a largely second-string side in Thursday’s rematch with Villa in the Carabao Cup.

To force his way into Erik ten Hag’s first-choice line-up, Van de Beek needed to make more of an impression than he did in his 122 minutes of playing time this past week. Both appearances were cut short by Ten Hag – before the hour mark against Real Sociedad, just after it at Villa Park – and combined for a total of only 39 touches. In each game, at the time of his substitution, he had seen less of the ball than any other player on the pitch.

Ten Hag refused to single out Van de Beek for criticism on Sunday, rightly focusing attention on a poor all-round display from his players, who saw a nine-game unbeaten run in all competitions come to an end. “It’s always difficult, when you are playing with 10 others and it’s not the day from the team, to value an individual,” he said. “I think it was collectively that we brought a bad performance.”

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The United manager had just been asked if the defeat underlined the importance of the suspended Bruno Fernandes, though, and that answer felt instructive as to his opinion on the displays of Van de Beek and others. “It’s about [how] the players who are now on the pitch,” he said. “They can do their work and if they do their job, with 100 per cent, with passion, desire, following the rules and principles of football, then we win this game.”

Van de Beek was far from the only United player to fall short on that count but he was arguably the one with the most to prove and the one who stood the most to gain from a good performance. His most telling contributions were downward headers in Villa’s penalty box at the end of the first half. One was half-cleared and led to the Luke Shaw shot that deflected in off Jacob Ramsey, another shortly after sparked penalty appeals. But otherwise, Van de Beek was barely involved.

Before the start of this season, Van de Beek had one solid, compelling argument to be given more playing opportunities: he had never had the full backing of a United manager who knows how to get the best out of him. That quickly became evident during his first months at the club under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who promised chances but rarely delivered, while Ralf Rangnick showed little inclination to start him either and eventually sanctioned last season’s six-month loan spell at Everton.

Could Donny van de Beek be on his way out of Manchester United? (Dave Thompson/PA)

That is no longer the case. Ten Hag’s experience of working with Van de Beek should only count in his favour. The belief that his best role is as a second striker, feeding off scraps in the opposition’s penalty area, was echoed by the United manager during the pre-season tour. “He has a really good smell for being in the right position.”

That was the role he was deployed in at Villa Park but to little effect. In any case, that is a radically different role and profile compared to the player he was replacing: Fernandes. For all the criticism the Portuguese receives for his erratic and over-ambitious passing, it is still a key component of United’s attack and not easily replicated. Van de Beek is far from a direct replacement. His strengths lie elsewhere.

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Bringing those strengths to the fore has been beyond each of Van de Beek’s managers at United so far, though. Ten Hag gave the first indication that sooner or later, unless something improves, there will come a time when United and Van de Beek have to agree that it simply has not worked out. “Yes,” the United manager admitted while previewing the trip to Villa, when that possibility was put to him, “but that can’t be now.”

It isn’t now. Not just yet. Just as two hours of football against Real Sociedad and Aston Villa was unlikely to transform Van de Beek’s United career, it does not condemn it either. It is still only six starts since the start of last season, only two full 90-minute outings in that time too. Van de Beek still has not had the regular, consistent run-outs that you suspect could unlock an extremely useful player and potentially a fan favourite. But when opportunities are so rare, once they come along, you have to take them.

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