For Manchester United, it’s not “just the Europa League”

If there was one reason why I would have been OK with holding on to Alexis Sanchez it was for games like this one. Thursday night Manchester United will face FC Astana in their first match of a taxing Europa League tournament.

With Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford being their only two senior center forwards, finding rest for the pair won’t be an easy feat. That’s where Alexis would come in handy. Play him as a false 9, the position he was best in last preseason for United as well as his final years at Arsenal, simply so that Rashford and Martial don’t have to. Then let youngsters Mason Greenwood and Angel Gomes run into the channels behind him. Hopefully the reduced level of competition would make that a viable attack.

But Alexis Sanchez isn’t here and there’s been some growing frustration in the early parts of the season that for all the praise Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has thrown on the budding academy products, he’s not actually playing them. While fans have been patient regarding the kids, many see the Europa League as their time to play.

That’s true, to a certain extent.

The Europa League is the second tier UEFA competition. It’s seen by almost everyone as “below” a team with the stature of Manchester United. Despite that, it’s not merely a throwaway tournament. This isn’t the League Cup, you can’t just put out a team of reserves with the mindset that if you don’t win all is well.

Regardless of your views of the Europa League, United should be going all out to win it. For starters, it’s a trophy. Winning trophies is a good thing, especially for a young team like United. It also has the added bonus of giving you a second pathway back to the Champions League.

Earlier this week Diogo Dalot said “for Manchester United winning the Europa League is more of a requirement than an accomplishment.”

He’s right. Like it or not this is the European competition that Manchester United are in this year and they should treat it as though they treat any European match.

As much as I’d like to see James Garner lining up behind Mason Greenwood, Angel Gomes, and Tahith Chong, you can’t do that. Being in the Europa League doesn’t mean that United should just throw their kids out to gain experience and see what they got. It doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t do that either, but you can’t be reckless about it.

There needs to be a balance. You can’t be making wholesale changes. Early round League Cup matches are famous for team’s stars not even being in the match-day squad, but that can’t happen here.

Remember, for a team like Manchester United, the Europa League group stage matches aren’t “extra matches.” If they were in the Champions League they would be preparing their players legs for the same number of midweek matches.

United don’t need to fully rotate their squad, and they especially shouldn’t do it for home games. Win all three games at Old Trafford and your reserves should be good enough to get the necessary away points to get you to the knockout rounds, but that means you need to win the home games.

There are definitely changes I would make. I’d start Mason Greenwood, Axel Tuanzebe, and Fred (and Ole Solskjaer has already confirmed they will all start). Next to Tuanzebe I’d start Harry Maguire. Not only has he never played in Europe but his presence would make it much easier for Tuanzebe to settle in than if he were next to say, Phil Jones.

Up front it wouldn’t shock me to see Jesse Lingard come back into the team. As bad as he’s been so far at some point United are going to need him. Maybe playing against some lesser competition will help him get his confidence back. You can say the same about Andreas Pereira.

The midfield is where it gets tricky. Fred will come into the team but who will he play next to? This could be a good opportunity to get Scott McTominay some rest, or see what a Fred-McTominay midfield axis looks like? If Fred can display positional discipline, it could open the door up for a three man midfield that allows Pogba to get a little further forward.

As for Pogba, he was back training with the team on Tuesday but then off on his own again Wednesday. I never believed he was as hurt as they said he was and I think if push came to shove he’d be able to play. Solskjaer has said both he and Martial should be ready for Sunday, which leads me to believe they’re ready now.

If it were up to me I’d have them on the bench. If you need a late goal you can bring them on (again, these games are important). If you don’t, you can bring them on for the last 10-15 minutes just to get a run out before Sunday.

Using two subs on Pogba and Martial would probably come at the expense of James Garner, who again I would love to see out there, but again, patience. You have the League Cup next week where you can experiment all you want.

The last matter is who plays in goal. Solskjaer has confirmed that will be Sergio Romero. I totally get the logic behind it, he needs games too, and he’s more than capable. My one issue with rotating your goalkeepers like this is what inevitably happens is the Europa League becomes “Romero’s competition.” Again, he’s more than capable of getting the job done (and he did in 2017) but should United progress in this tournament, De Gea more than deserves to start a European final. It could cause problems down the road.

Like all fans, I’d love to see the kids get out on the field Thursday night, but I don’t think that’s the smart move. You need to take the Europa League seriously, if nothing else just to further remind the senior players why they don’t want to be playing in this tournament.

Treat the home games exactly how you would treat Champions League group stage matches. The away matches you can tinker a little more if you just need to play for draws. But don’t throw it away.

Starting XI I’d like to see: De Gea, Dalot, Maguire, Tuanzebe, Wan-Bissaka, McTominay, Fred, Lingard, Mata, Gomes, Greenwood

Starting XI I think Solskjaer will pick: Romero, Young, Tuanzebe, Maguire, Dalot, Matic, McTominay, Fred, Greenwood, Lingard, Rashford

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