As the fourth official’s board was raised in the 67th minute at Goodison Park on Wednesday night, the number 34 flashed up. Donny van de Beek’s time was up.
It had been an average performance from the Dutchman and certainly nothing to write home about. He gave United fans nothing to get excited about and hardly proved a point.
Then again, he was playing on the left wing.
A penny for the thoughts of the 23-year-old, who was encouraged by his manager before kick-off in this Carabao Cup quarter-final to show why he deserved his place in the regular starting XI.
“It's a big night for all of us,” Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said. “They want a chance to stake a claim and we want to see Donny play as well as we know he can do and has done.”
He has shown glimpses of his talent since arriving from Ajax in a £40 million ($53m) transfer in August. This was only his eighth start.
He was regarded in some quarters as a luxury signing and he did little at Goodison to change that perception as United won 2-0 and progressed to the semi-finals, where they will again play rivals Manchester City.
It wasn't that his display was bad; there were some nice touches as he looked to build the play and create space for those around him. There were times when he looked like he could be in on goal, only for his run not to be picked out by his team-mates.
While there wasn't anything particularly bad about his display it wasn't a performance that will live long in the memory. For a player who is fighting in a crowded pool to get a start, he didn’t do enough.Getty Images
Solskjaer was happy with the Netherlands international’s contribution, despite his early hooking, and suggested that he may play him in that role again going forward.
"He is one of those clever players that can move into space [and] find space, same as Bruno [Fernandes]," Solskjaer said.
"The two of them, we wanted them to get in between the lines, to get on the ball, and he linked the play really well for us and I thought he did really well."
While Solskjaer was pleased with the output, Van de Beek’s case to start more regularly isn’t being helped by the form of the midfielders around him.
Scott McTominay, who missed this game through injury, was a towering presence in the Premier League win against Leeds at the weekend. Fred continues to improve and was rested with Saturday’s important clash against Leicester in mind and Fernandes is one of the first names on the teamsheet.
The Portuguese, despite the busy festive schedule, was one of just two players to retain his place after the win against Leeds, with Solskjaer ringing the changes for the Everton game.
The biggest obstacle to more game time for Van de Beek, in a position that may be more favourable, is the form of Paul Pogba. The Frenchman has admitted that his Covid-19 diagnosis had impacted his performances at the start of the season but since the last international break he has stepped up a level.
His quality was on display again as he played a deeper midfield role alongside Nemanja Matic. Eight times he gained possession, the joint-most of anyone in the side, and he produced three interceptions. But there was also some characteristic clever footwork.Getty Images
As United dominated the first 30 minutes, with a flurry of chances from which they could have killed the game early, he produced a deft flick in the area to set up Van de Beek. His shot was blocked and went instead for a corner.
Solskjaer knows there is more quality to come from the World Cup winner.
“Paul is getting fitter and fitter,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing with Paul, [his] last year-and-a-half [has been] marred with injury and Covid.
“I’m very pleased with his performance and contribution to the team. He’s playing better and better and he will continue to improve.”
Solskjaer said this week that the possibility of trophies might encourage players to stay at the club but it will take far more than a potential Carabao Cup winner’s medal to change Pogba’s mind.
Despite his agent’s comments a couple of weeks ago, however, he has demonstrated the work rate and commitment to make a difference to this team.
While Van de Beek struggled to take his chance, Edinson Cavani, who was back from injury, did not. The striker fluffed his lines in the first half but it was his moment of quality which sealed the tie in the 88th minute.
He took a touch, switched his feet and guided his shot past Robin Olsen to set up a showdown with City at Old Trafford next month.
That’s four semi-finals for Solskjaer in his two years in charge. That might well be an impressive tally but this time he needs to go one step further and show they are really making progress by securing that first final spot.