As Manchester City and Liverpool competed for the first Silverware of the 2019-20 season, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his Man Utd players were at Carrington preparing for the final week of pre-season training. Pogba, De Gea et al could be forgiven for avoiding Sky Sports News on the TV screens around the United training base as their closest rivals again locked horns hoping to lift the Community Shield at Wembley. In the end it was City who won a relatively even game following a penalty shootout, but United will be hoping to have a say in the 4 competitions they are set to enter this season, to avoid a repeat of Manchester City’s domestic domination of last year. So what kind of shape do the current United squad find themselves in ahead of the start of the Premier League season next weekend?
United confirmed they would end their pre-season schedule unbeaten with a 2-2 draw against AC Milan in Cardiff, though ultimately ‘winning’ the game on penalties. This followed outright victories against Perth Glory and Leeds United in Australia, Inter Milan in Singapore, Spurs in Shanghai, and Kristiansund in Norway. The old sayings still stand; pre-season is about performance and fitness rather than results – but winning is a habit and United have made a good start and should go into the Chelsea game on Sunday with confidence. United’s playing style has altered to the last few seasons, with an obvious pressing game having some success in its early stages. Jesse Lingard and Dan James have adapted well in particular to a pressing style, with Marcus Rashford, a naturally-fit attacker beginning to alter his game to suit Solskjaer’s preferred style. Anthony Martial has been preferred to Rashford as the number ‘9’ up top, with Rashford generally playing out wide, though Ole’s tactics demand flexibility and fluidity from his attackers on the pitch. Angel Gomes and Mason Greenwood look slightly more ready to be involved in the first-team this season than Tahith Chong and James Garner, though all will benefit from learning a ‘front-foot’ style of football at their stages of development, than becoming too familiar with ‘park-the-bus’. Romelu Lukaku will likely depart having played no part in any of United’s pre-season matches, while Alexis Sanchez will begin the 19/20 season as a bit-part player off the bench, if he’s lucky.
Rumours on social media reared their ugly heads again this weekend as Paul Pogba stayed in Manchester rather than travelling to Cardiff with the rest of the squad for the game vs AC Milan. Solskjaer stressed this was due to some slight back pain, and not because he was itching for a move to Real Madrid. Pogba has been one of United’s best players during pre-season, showing a calmness and a maturity on the pitch that Solskjaer and Phelan will be delighted with. Pogba has already created a good partnership with new signing Aaron Wan-Bissaka on United’s right side, and with Scott McTominay in the centre of midfield. Ole is trying to build his new-look United around Pogba, and the Frenchman will be absolutely key to United’s hope of success this season. Scott McTominay is starting to mirror his excellent talking off the pitch on it, though Nemanja Matic has looked rather leggy, and Andreas Pereira’s good start to the tour faded by the end. Midfield should be a priority going into the last 4 days of the Transfer Window, with Fred United’s 3rd choice midfielder going into the first round of Premier League games.
Defensively, the signing of Aaron Wan-Bissaka has had multiple positive outcomes: an extra attacking outlet on the previously nullified right hand side; a right-back who has excellent recovery pace, but also a player who in theory removes Ashley Young from contention. Young doesn’t deserve the criticism that comes his way from overly vocal United fans, but also doesn’t deserve to be United’s starting full-back as we near the year 2020. Victor Lindelof has cemented his position as United’s number one centre-back with an impressive tour, while Axel Tuanzebe has shown that his loan season at Aston Villa has made him ready for the step-up at United. Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo would have been exchanging nervous glances as news broke on Friday afternoon that United have agreed an £80m deal for Leicester City’s Harry Maguire. Maguire will slot in immediately alongside Lindelof at the back, leaving the aforementioned 3 defenders vulnerable going into the final few days of the window. One will surely be sold, while Eric Bailly’s injury will earn him one final reprieve. Behind United’s back 4, Solskjaer expects David De Gea to sign a new long-term contract that will release the concern and anxiety that coincided with one of the Spaniard’s weakest seasons last term. De Gea will now be able to focus purely on his football at Old Trafford.
Adding Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Dan James & Harry Maguire alongside Angel Gomes and Mason Greenwood to United’s first team, while waving goodbye to Antonio Valencia, Ander Herrera and Romelu Lukaku looks like good business on paper, as does keeping Paul Pogba and David De Gea. It should not be forgotten that United looked excellent when Ole first came in to replace Jose Mourinho midway through last season, taking 32 points from his first 13 Premier League games. These players are capable of winning football matches against anybody at their best, and at their fittest. It should also not be forgotten that, in Roy Keane’s words, these players are capable of ‘throwing their manager under the bus’, should they not like the direction things are going in. The exit of Lukaku, who looked like he was running on quicksand last season, will help Solskjaer. He needs players who will buy into his vision. James, Wan-Bissaka and Maguire will certainly do that, as will the likes of Rashford, McTominay, Greenwood, Tuanzebe and Shaw. Now Solskjaer needs his senior players – Pogba, De Gea, Sanchez, Martial and Mata etc to demonstrate their maturity by following the instructions given, and setting the best example possible for the rest of the squad to follow.
Alongside the Premier League, United will be looking to make progress in the Carabao (League) Cup, FA Cup and the dreaded Europa League. Solskjaer should not be using the latter as a way into the Champions League this season – United have enough about them to make the Top 4 this season with ease, particularly looking at Chelsea’s problems and Arsenal’s defence. However, squad rotation will be key to success in the Premier League this season and some squad players should get considerable game time in Europe’s ‘B’ competition, which begins in September. Solskjaer should be going all out this year to win the League Cup and FA Cup, which present very realistic chances of obtaining silverware, though that can depend upon favourable cup draws. United faced Chelsea, Arsenal and Wolves away in the FA Cup last season, while eventual winners Man City only faced Premier League opposition twice before their final vs Watford – at home against Burnley, and in the semi-final vs Brighton. If Solskjaer wants to halt Manchester City’s run of winning domestic trophies, he has to take the attitude that United are one of the team’s best placed to do so – and win the trophies himself.
United have a tricky-looking first two Premier League games, firstly at home to Chelsea, followed by a trip to Molineux to face Wolves. An addition or two would be nice and lift spirits amongst supporters, but at least Solskjaer gets two awkward games out of the way with a fully fit squad, and before United have to travel to the deepest, darkest depths of Europe on Thursdays. Come on United!
My starting XI vs Chelsea: De Gea; Wan-Bissaka, Lindelof, Maguire, Shaw; McTominay, Pogba; Greenwood, Mata, Rashford; Martial