Manchester United return to action on Sunday when former archrivals Arsenal will visit Old Trafford. The match comes on the heels of United demolishing Bundesliga leaders RB Leipzig 5-0 in the Champions League Wednesday night.
In an October schedule that featured trips to Newcastle and Paris as well as home matches against Chelsea and Leipzig, Arsenal may be the most difficult one of them all.
After the high flying win over Paris Saint Germain, United returned home to earn a 0-0 draw against Chelsea. It was a good point mainly due to the fact that it was their first clean sheet of the season and their first clean sheet at Old Trafford since their 3-0 win over Sheffield United – the second game of Project Restart.
The wins over PSG and Leipzig were great, but they just added fuel to the argument that we already know. Solskjaer knows how to set his team up for a big game, but it’s matches against more defensive sides where he’s struggled.
That is Arsenal.
This is not your older brother’s Arsenal. It’s not Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal. Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal is an extremely defensive side who are not very adventurous in attack. They’re actually quite boring, but they’re exactly the kind of team Solskjaer has struggled against in the past.
United returning home from Paris to only earn a draw vs Chelsea highlighted another fact. United’s record under Solskjaer following European matches is in fact quite poor. With Chelsea feeling more like dropped points than earned draw questions about consistency are fair game.
Last season United dropped points in four of their six Premier League matches following their Europa League group stage matches. These include losses to West Ham and Bournemouth as well as home draws to Aston Villa and Everton. Their only wins came against Norwich and Brighton.
Their forays in midweek League Cup matches didn’t fare much better. United only won one match following a midweek League Cup fixture – again to Norwich – losing to Watford and Bournemouth and dropping points against Arsenal and Wolves.
Oddly, in matches after midweek FA Cup or Premier League fixtures United faired far better.
That lack of consistency is certainly a concern and you can argue it’s even carried into this season with September’s League Cup fixtures – though I’m currently writing off September as I feel at the end of the day we’ll ultimately look at it as an aberration due to not having a pre season. For last season, there is a very valid reason why this happened.
United didn’t have any last season. Just look at the team sheets they put out from the six fixtures after a Europa League match.
YIKES! That is bad.
Last season Solskjaer didn’t really have any other options. At this point of his career Juan Mata is a once a week player. He wasn’t having much of an impact in the Premier League so he played in the Europa League. The Thursday-Sunday turnaround was too much for him so Solskjaer was forced to go with Andreas Pereira. That’s a huge drop off and is not exactly a player that inspires confidence.
It’s telling that in the two games United had their “preferred” front six (Martial-Rashford-James-Pereira-Fred-McTominay) available they won. It’s ridiculous that I just wrote that sentence given how many of those six players are terrible.
In the knockout rounds Bruno Fernandes only played 10 minutes of the away leg against Brugge. When United came home to face Watford, instead of rotating from Mata to Pereira, they were bringing in Fernandes. That’s a huge difference. United won 3-0.
(They did play Fernandes, McTominay, and Fred in the home leg against Brugge and all three of them returned to face Everton at the weekend. They dropped points).
This season it’s different. Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford didn’t even start on Wednesday, giving their legs a much needed rest. They’re not rusty though, Rashford scored three goals in 20 minutes and now has four goals as a substitute this week. Edinson Cavani is available as well. McTominay didn’t play on Wednesday.
United now have the ability to bring fresh legs in for these Premier League games without a drop off in quality. Donny van de Beek, Paul Pogba, Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Edinson Cavani, Fred, Nemanja Matic can all be trusted or rested whether it’s a Premier League or Champions League match. And if they don’t play one game, they’ll probably play the next one.
It’s a night and day difference from last season, and it should solve that consistency issue pretty quick.
If United start winning after European games this season we’ll know for sure it was the whole ‘the actual squad is terrible’ that was undoing them last year. If they don’t, then we’ve got some serious questions to start asking.