Manchester United’s Europa League campaign got off to a rather ropey start last night, as the Red Devils were beaten 1-0 by Feyenoord in Rotterdam.
It was a lacklustre performance from United, and few players stood out.
Manager José Mourinho commented before the game that the Europa League is "not a competition Manchester United wants, it’s not a competition that I want, and it’s not a competition the players want."
And, frankly, it showed. The much-changed XI that Mourinho selected to take the field in De Kuip stadium lacked urgency, seemed disorganised, and creatited little in the way of goal scoring opportunites.
There is a feeling that the Thursday-Sunday fixture arrangement necessitated by the club’s participation in the Europa League will hinder any potential title challenge, and that maybe the competition should be disregarded; the sooner United are out, the better.
But the Europa League could, if the right mindset is applied, act as a boon to United’s battle for Premier League supremacy.
Only three players who started last weekend’s Manchester derby lined up against Feyenoord last night. The likes of Matteo Darmian, Chris Smalling, Marcos Rojo (although, the less said about him the better) Morgan Schneiderlin and Marcus Rashford were all given their first starts of the season, while first-team regulars Wayne Rooney, Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia weren’t even included in the matchday squad.
Eight changes to the starting XI was probably too many, and will have had a detrimental effect on team cohesion, with many players still blowing off the cobwebs as they find match fitness.
But with a delicately rotated side, Mourinho could utilise the Europa League as a proving ground for some of the lesser seen members of his squad. United’s roster is deep, and the jury remains out on many of the players within it; could the Europa League act as the ideal stage for these men to demonstrate their worth?
The relative lack of playing time afforded to most of last nights starters so far this season would appear to be evidence to the fact that Mourinho is either unsure of their usefulness, or has decided they are not going to figure in the games that really matter.
Yet, by the same token, the Portuguese coach still doesn’t seem entirely sure of his best XI. Granted, there are certain positions within the team that pick themselves — David de Gea, Shaw, Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are key. But does Mourinho know who his best options are on the wings? And who should partner Pogba in midfield? or Eric Bailly in defence?
There are still positions up for grabs, and by giving opportunities to some of the fringe players in Europa League games, while still surrounding them with a core of first-team regulars, will give them an opportunity to stake their claim for a starting berth when the serious business comes back around.
Nobody particularly covered themselves in glory last night, and some *cough* Rojo *Cough* showed that they are not of the requisite level to pull on a United shirt. But Schneiderlin, Darmian and Ander Herrera were among the better performers, all of whom play in positions that are still a little "up in the air", so to speak.
And besides, After three seasons of gross under-performance, the Europa League might not be where United want to be, but it’s no more than they deserve right now; their place back at the top table of European football is not a given; it must be re-earned.
So why not treat the competition as a chance to iron out the creases in the currently-flawed tactical plan? Experiment a little.
And why not see if one or two of the players who have warmed the bench for most of the season aren’t deserving of a little more playing time. Maybe they won’t grab their chance, and further reinforcements may have to be sought in the transfer market. But, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
The worst that can happen is you end up getting knocked out of a tournament that is "not a competition Manchester United wants." But, who knows, given the right planning and thought, these hungry squad outsiders with a point to prove might just make it work.