There are just eight weeks of the season left, including an international break, and Manchester United have 11 games to fit in. Such is the price of cup success.
Given that injuries are already a problem at the front of United fans’ minds, the prospect of so many games is an awkward one. The games are a good sign of United’s quality and progress, and further success would lead to even more. But it might leave the squad spread very thin.
Fortunately, the international break — although condensing the remaining fixtures into a tight, seven-week block — may give United time to recover. Nemanja Matic returned to start against Arsenal, with Anthony Martial fit enough to come off the bench. Ander Herrera, Juan Mata, and Jesse Lingard are also back in training.
Still, the spectre of Lingard entering and leaving the match against Liverpool due to injury will surely remain in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s mind. He’s rotated a lot before in cup competitions, and has always adapted his tactics depending on who has been available, and this flexibility will be an asset.
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It’ll be particularly necessary given that he’s determined not to prioritise one competition over another.
“No, we don’t have to choose [which competitions to prioritise] with injuries we’ve had lately,” Solskjaer said after the Arsenal game.
“That’s given us a great chance to give players playing time and game-time and they’re coming back maybe for Wolves.
“After the international break we’ve got a full squad fit and the ones who’ve come in when the regulars have been injured have done really well, so we’ll be ready for that.”
It would be a surprise if we saw the same line-up two games in a row from now until the end of the season (which could be as many as 16 games away). We’ve taken a look at the players who might be rotating in and out for each other over the next couple of months.
Ander Herrera, Andreas Pereira,
Nemanja Matic, Scott McTominay
Pereira and McTominay won themselves a lot of respect with their performance in Paris against Paris Saint-Germain. Pereira in particular had never been thought of as a particularly defensive player, but he filled in for Herrera and his energy very well.
McTominay, meanwhile is a more natural replacement for Matic, both players more suited to sitting back for much of the game but breaking forward with the ball at their feet if needed.
Tahith Chong, Diogo Dalot, Romelu Lukaku, Juan Mata
This is a bizarre combination of players, but it’s what Solskjaer has to work with on the right-hand side.
While Juan Mata has been the usual choice for this area of the pitch, the other three all bring something slightly different to the table that can be called upon depending on the situation.
Dalot has been used in the past week as an old-school right-sided midfielder, mixed with a right-wing back role; Lukaku has played wide right in a three up top, or in a wide two; and Chong plays more like a conventional wing player than Mata does.
This is the grouping that’s most likely to be rotated for tactical reasons, rather than purely for fitness. The incredibly wide array of options, though, means that if any important personnel need to be rested elsewhere in the team, Solskjaer will have tactical options for what to do.
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Romelu Lukaku, Marcus Rashford, Alexis Sanchez, Anthony Martial,
Jesse Lingard, (and perhaps Paul Pogba)
It really was an unfortunate state of affairs that, in the past few weeks, three of United’s five true attacking players were out with injury.
All of them are very capable players, and are flexible enough to offer Solskjaer some tactical variety as well, if he wants it.
Given how advanced and attacking Pogba plays, he could even be thrown into the mix here, providing that the midfield options behind him are all fit and healthy.
His interplay with the forwards has always been good, his tall figure would make him a decent target man if needed, and his crosses, when he’s had the chance to put one in, have been superb. He could make an interesting, unconventional, addition to the forward line.
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The ones who can’t be rotated
Almost every position apart from the defence and goalkeeper have been mentioned here.
Clearly, you wouldn’t want to rotate David de Gea, and are unlikely to have any need to beyond giving Sergio Romero some FA Cup match-time.
Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof are playing well enough in the centre of defence that you wouldn’t want to disrupt that partnership.
At full-back, Ashley Young and Luke Shaw are both playing similarly well, as well as having very few true alternative options to them.
Young is a great leader in the back-line, and team as a whole, and Shaw’s left foot gives United an extra aspect in attack.
Perhaps Diogo Dalot could come in for Young if needed, or Matteo Darmian for Shaw, or Eric Bailly coming in to give a centre-back a rest. However, for the most part, the back five feels like it should stay the same wherever possible.
*odds subject to change
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by Tom Bodell