Manchester United’s Europa League campaign kicks off this week in the round of 32. Over the last few weeks the club’s league form has taken a tumble causing fans to believe the team should punt the Europa League and focus on the league.
Well, that’s really just the latest excuse for fans to want to punt the Europa League. In January fans were saying United should punt it so they could focus on a title race that they were never realllly in. Now fans are worried about the club just staying in the top four (how fickle everyone is). That doesn’t really make sense to me though, if you’re worried about Champions League qualification why would you willingly sacrifice one of the two paths to get there? (I mean, Jose Mourinho went the complete other way in 2017, he started mailing in the league by the end of February. Paul Pogba only played in five of United’s final 12 league matches – two of which he only played 45 minutes – but he didn’t miss a single Europa League match).
Anyway, it doesn’t matter what you or I think they should do because simply put, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is not going to punt the competition. It’s not in his DNA. Hell, it’s not in Manchester United’s DNA, and that’s the DNA that Solskjaer is trying to restore to the club. As I always say, the Europa League may not be the European competition we want but it’s the European competition we got.
It’s also not an option because that would mean bringing a bunch of U23s into the first team squad which isn’t possible because of COVID bubbles and other protocols.
It may not be the most glamorous of trophies or the top of fans priorities but it’s still a trophy. If you aren’t a fan of a club trying to win every competition they’re in and would rather just focus on league position than Manchester United aren’t the club for you. I’d suggest Tottenham or Arsenal, they’re big on that idea.
Plus, imagine telling Bruno Fernandes that he’s not playing because we don’t care about winning a trophy. And what kind of statement would that make to any potential signing?
So no, it’s not going to be punted away, so for let’s operate under that assumption. How will Ole approach the competition?
The Europa League is a bit of a burden. If you go all the way to the final there’s an extra two games compared to the Champions League. The Thursday-Sunday thing doesn’t bother me too much because I don’t see how it’s different to playing Wednesday-Saturday or Saturday-Tuesday.
The concerns about minutes and players needing rest are valid but that’s the beautiful thing here, United don’t have to use their best players every game. Remember, you don’t have to win every game. You have two legs, as long as you ‘get a result’ in the first leg you really only need to win the second leg. The (one) silver lining to the Europa League is, there are very few teams that are as good as Manchester United. They don’t need their best players to get a 1-1, 0-0, or even 1-0 result.
Solskjaer might talk about wanting to win the competition and say all that stuff, but remember, you should never listen to what he says in press conference. Actions speak louder than words and when push comes to shove, he still rotates his squad in cup games. Bruno Fernandes has yet to start an FA Cup match this campaign, and one of those was against Liverpool.
The Europa League will be the same way. Last year United were on the outside of the top four looking in when the Europa League started. They didn’t just want to win it, it was probably important to. Nevertheless this was the team he sent out in the first leg against Club Brugge.
That game was as bad as that team looked. They grabbed an away goal in a sloppy 1-1 – which everyone for some reason freaked out about (you know because, Ole Out), only to come home and thrash them 5-0 in a team that featured Odion Ighalo. Bruno Fernandes played a total of 74 minutes across the two games.
The next round saw this team go out and win 5-0, essentially rendering the home leg meaningless.
So that’s all you need to do if you’re Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. You can rest your players in the first leg while giving minutes to some members of the squad that need it. He’ll probably play pretty defensively for 75-80 minutes, then try and win it in the last 10. If they do, United can then look to just kill off the home leg. If not, then you try and win the home leg and hopefully you do it pretty quickly. That means these games will undoubtedly be boring but when all is said and done Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford will probably need to play around 75 minutes between two games. That’s much better than January where the amount of league games necessitated them playing 90 minutes twice a week.
Real Sociedad originally worried United fans as they were at the top of La Liga. They have since (predictably) come back to earth.
With all that being said, here’s how I’d line the team up against Real Sociedad on Thursday.
This is a mixture of ‘how I would do it’ along with ‘what I think Solskjaer would do.’ For every game at this point of the season the manager doesn’t just have his eye on this one but the next game as well. The team is picked accordingly.
Bring in Matic-Fred to control the middle of the park and prevent Sociedad from scoring. We don’t need to win this game so McTominay gets rested for the league match on Sunday. Dan James is there because again, defense + energy. Bruno, Rashford, Cavani, get rested.
The big loss here is Juan Mata. He would be the perfect player to play in these Europa League games and a great compliment to Van de Beek. Though to be honest, with the injury to Pogba I might have rested him so he’d be able to face Newcastle. He’s been suspiciously absent for the last two weeks. He hasn’t been pictured in training for over two weeks and the last time he was in the matchday squad was against Sheffield United. An unexplained absence like this could be COVID related.
You might have also noticed I slipped Lindelof in there when you would think this would be the perfect chance for rotation. Yes, but I’d highly doubt that Solskjaer would turn to Tuanzebe in this spot given recent performances. (I could see him getting the nod at right back over Williams though). Bailly is just returning from injury so there’s no way Ole would play him on both Thursday and then the following Sunday, and I think he’s a better fit to face Newcastle so, Lindelof keeps his place.
Lastly there’s the omission of Amad Diallo. I’m sure every fan in the world is screaming for Amad to start this match but that is just not going to happen. United are dying for some creativity from the right wing but Solskjaer is going to want to minimize the pressure put on Amad as much as he can. That means making at least one – but probably more – appearances from the bench before he gets his full debut. Can easily see him coming on for the last 10 minutes when Solskjaer starts to ‘go for it.’
Plus, Amad was “ill” this past weekend so that means there’s almost no chance he starts this match. He may not even travel with the squad.
Then three days later here’s what I’d throw out against Newcastle.
McTominay brings you more energy in the middle as well as some shooting. Bailly comes back in so United can play a higher line against Newcastle. Cavani’s lack of buildup play doesn’t help against low blocks. I’d leave him on the bench and use him as a game changing option. Mata remains a big loss while Pogba is out, he was so influential the last time United faced Newcastle. Van de Beek’s inclusion will really depend on how he plays against Sociedad.
Go get a result in Spain (via Turin) and beat Newcastle and we’ll see where we are next week.