Louis van Gaal has given Manchester United first-team minutes to a lot of surprising players this season, but there are a handful of individuals he has either consistently passed over or only inconsistently used.
All four of these players are creative, dynamic performers, capable of injecting flair and attacking purpose into a side. Given that those factors have been fairly regularly missing from the United team this season, there should be all the more reason to gamble on giving them a chance.
In truth, in all but one case there is some challenge in getting minutes for all of these players, given they occupy similar positions on the pitch, but all are worth a try. Perhaps the chance at a UEFA Champions League place—which has opened up again following United's 1-0 win over Manchester City—will make Van Gaal reluctant to experiment.
In truth, though, he should realise that victory was borne of an experiment—the promotion to the first team of Marcus Rashford. For once the Dutchman should embrace a little of the Sir Alex Ferguson principle and take an attacking gamble.
Let's take a look at the players on whom he should gamble.
Van Gaal's treatment of Ander Herrera remains baffling. Much has been written before about the player's importance to United—back in December this writer argued strongly in favour of the Red Devils hanging on to the former Athletic Bilbao man.
For much of the season, it was easy to hope that Van Gaal was repeating his pattern of last season, where it took Herrera a while to break into the side, but once he had, he became a fixture. Albeit, it seemed bizarre that the midfielder would have to prove his importance all over again, so definitive had the evidence been last time around.
Ander Herrera @AnderHerrera
Everything will be decided in the replay #FACup https://t.co/TkJzvJwZto2016-3-13 20:19:39
Now, though, it is clear the manager simply has other preferences in his midfield. According to WhoScored.com, Herrera has played 230 fewer Premier League minutes than Michael Carrick, for example, and in recent times missed out on games against Liverpool in the UEFA Europa League to Marouane Fellaini.
This was in spite of he and Morgan Schneiderlin beginning to form an understanding and putting in some decent performances together at the end of February and the beginning of March.
Admittedly, two of the opponents were FC Midtjylland and Shrewsbury Town, but nonetheless it was Schneiderlin and Herrera who anchored the midfield as United won four games in a row. The run ended when that partnership was disrupted against West Bromwich Albion.
The idea that Schneiderlin and Herrera should be United's midfield partnership of choice in order to provide the balance of attack and defence required for the current system seems so obvious on its face that arguing for it feels futile. If Van Gaal believed in the partnership, he would have employed it more often.
Nonetheless, between now and the end of the season, it is a partnership he should develop. Herrera needs more minutes. There have been lapses of form—hardly surprising given the irregularity of his inclusion—but last season and at his best this season, he has shown he very obviously possesses the quality to positively impact United.
Almost as baffling as Van Gaal's treatment of Ander Herrera is his treatment of Andreas Pereira.
While Van Gaal can be accused of ignoring many of United's traditions, particularly an aspiration to dynamic, attacking football, he certainly cannot be accused of not giving young players a chance.
Rashford is the latest beneficiary, but there have been many, and many have been surprising. Few would have suggested that Cameron Borthwick-Jackson was ready for a full-back starting berth, for example, and yet he has looked very comfortable in the side.
Pereira, though, has hardly featured at all. This is in spite of an abundance of talent, in spite of looking pretty comfortable whenever he has been brought into the first team and in spite of United crying out for some invention for much of the season.
Andreas Pereira @andrinhopereira
Happy to have scored against South Africa in a friendly match. @CBF_Futebol https://t.co/mU64b5NufD2016-3-28 01:26:01
When he plays at youth-team level, it is obvious he has reached the point in his career where there is little left to teach him.
The People's Person aggregated a round-up of Twitter responses to Pereira's performance for the Under-21s against Southampton back in January, noting: "The 20-year-old midfielder was in sparkling form in a performance which showed just how far above U21s level he is at this stage in his career."
Part of the reason Pereira has had so little first-team football is that Van Gaal has consistently used his substitutions to make like-for-like fitness-management swaps rather than trying to change the game.
He should use Pereira more frequently to attempt to inject a little magic into games in which United are struggling between now and the end of the season.
Van Gaal's use of Memphis Depay is, frankly, a little upsetting. As was covered in more detail here, the beginning of the season saw him appear integral to the manager's plans, but he has gradually become increasingly marginalised as the season progressed.
It seemed his outstanding performance against FC Midtjylland at Old Trafford, followed by the very creditable performance against Arsenal, should have ensured him a place in a front three with Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, perhaps with Juan Mata behind them.
Instead Van Gaal has been using a front three of Rashford, Martial and Mata with Jesse Lingard behind them. The impact on the player's confidence and long-term career at United remains to be seen, but for the moment, it is a worrying picture for anyone convinced Memphis can come good.
He most assuredly needs to feature between now and the end of the season to quell speculation ahead of the summer.
In truth, it may be too late for Adnan Januzaj—certainly if Van Gaal remains at the club. Having been a bright enough spark under David Moyes to be awarded the No. 11 shirt in Van Gaal's first season, Januzaj has been something of a forgotten man.
The talent that earned him that shirt, though, has presumably not disappeared. Like Pereira, Under-21s football looks much too easy for Januzaj.
His loan move to Borussia Dortmund should have been a positive turning point, but unfortunately the player's attitude let him down, at least according to Dortmund coach Thomas Tuchel, per FourFourTwo.
Tuchel said: "A part of him was always still in Manchester and we just couldn’t help him cut this umbilical cord. He didn’t wholly embrace Borussia. He always compared everything with how it had been at United."
Ironically, things at United have hardly been rosy for Januzaj. He has made just two substitute appearances since returning to the club. Van Gaal should give him a chance to show what he can do between now and the summer, if only to inflate his value in the market if the club decide to give up on him.
With three of these players vying for attacking midfield positions, they are unlikely all to get their due. Nonetheless they stand as a symbol for Van Gaal's reluctance to value flair and individual skill. Perhaps a new manager would assess this collection with fresh eyes.
Perhaps they would still be found wanting, but from what they have shown so far, it would be good for them to be given a chance.