Manchester United host AFC Bournemouth on Wednesday evening at Old Trafford. Coming hot on the heels of last weekend’s loss to Manchester City, this match presents the home side with an opportunity to make a quick return to winning ways. Instead of sitting around for a week stewing over their lackluster derby performance, the United players must wait just three days to take out their anger and frustration.
Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth have the distinct misfortune of being next on the Manchester United fixture list after that disappointing derby defeat. And the Poppies will have to be at their best to get anything from this game. The visitors are winless in their last four matches and sit precariously close to the relegation line in fourteenth place.
Ever since the club’s promotion to the top-flight in 2015, Bournemouth have won plenty of admirers thanks to a positive approach rarely seen from Premier League minnows. This is not a club content to sit back and pray for a point against the top teams, but instead chases a win each time out. The Poppies keep the ball on the deck, play a relatively high defensive line, and are very well-coached.
Eddie Howe not only possesses a deft tactical touch, but also an impressive eye for talent. This summer, the Bournemouth manager signed Nathan Ake from Chelsea for a club-record £20 million fee. The 22-year-old center-back quickly proved a bargain, solidifying the Poppies defense and already ranking among the league’s best at his position.
The ageless Jermain Defoe also joined during the offseason, combining with incumbent forwards Callum Wilson and Joshua King to form a potent attack. Defoe scored a brace at the weekend to help Bournemouth earn a point against Crystal Palace. Though well past his best, Defoe has certainly not lost his nose for goal.
Last spring, Bournemouth grabbed a point at Old Trafford during a time when United struggled to break down and beat lesser opposition at home. Thankfully, Manchester United have shown vast improvement on that score so far this season.
The 2-1 loss to Manchester City snapped United’s 40-game unbeaten run at Old Trafford — and José Mourinho will surely be aiming to start that streak anew on Wednesday. In the aftermath of the derby defeat, the manager had already set his sights on Bournemouth: “I know we can win on Wednesday and we are going to work and fight for it. That’s the only thing I say, match after match. Every match is a match where we are going to give everything with our qualities — that is what we do all the time.”
United’s defense struggled mightily versus their crosstown rivals, so don’t be surprised if Mourinho reverts to the 3-5-2 to tighten up the backline. Phil Jones might be ready to rejoin the starting eleven after making the bench on derby day, but Eric Bailly remains weeks away from a return. Bailly reportedly will be out of action until 2018 after re-aggravating his groin injury. His absence continues to put the pinch on United’s beleaguered defense.
In midfield, Paul Pogba sits out the second game of his three-match ban. Ander Herrera, who replaced the suspended Frenchman against City, continued to struggle and looked an ineffective partner for Nemanja Matić. Whether he goes back to the bench, though, mostly depends on the fitness of Marouane Fellaini. If Fellaini can’t go, Mourinho will have little choice but to reprise the Herrera-Matić pairing.
Up front, it might finally be time for Romelu Lukaku to take a step back. His slump in front of goal is now negatively affecting the whole team and the quickest route back to his world-class best could be a short spell on the bench. Big Rom has played a lot of minutes so far this season and would surely benefit from a chance to clear his head and freshen those legs. Any one of Zlatan Ibrahimović, Marcus Rashford, or Anthony Martial could ably lead the line in Lukaku’s absence.
What Manchester United need most is a confidence boost after Sunday’s disheartening loss. The league might be gone — though crazier things have happened — but there’s still much to play for and it all starts with Bournemouth on Wednesday. A decisive victory can lift the spirits of the players, management, and supporters ahead of the busy Christmas period. If this season is now a battle for second place, let’s get it started with three points against the Poppies.