A shocked Manchester United travel to the south coast for a mid-week showdown with AFC Bournemouth. On Sunday, the club got its busy week off to the worst possible start with a head-scratching loss to lowly West Brom at Old Trafford. Now they must quickly regroup to hold off Liverpool’s late charge for second place in the Premier League.
United sit just a single point above their Merseyside rivals — albeit with a game in hand — and cannot afford any more slip-ups against lesser teams. And, if this season’s reverse fixture is anything to go by, the Reds will have their hands full on Wednesday evening.
When the two sides met in December, United narrowly won 1-0 courtesy of a Romelu Lukaku header. But that scoreline papered over a poor performance by Jose Mourinho’s squad — after all, they were outshot 7-2 by the visiting Poppies. The Reds must play better at the Vitality Stadium to avoid a repeat of the West Brom debacle.
And, if Mourinho has anything to say about it, they will play simpler too.
Following Sunday’s loss, the United manager aired his grievances to the club’s official website: “I think we were deservedly punished because we were masters in complication. Players didn’t want to or couldn’t play simple. Everything was slow. Everything was one more touch, one more flick, one more trick, one more turn. No continuity or fluidity in our football.”
All in all, it was a very lackluster follow-up to last weekend’s thrilling win over Manchester City in the derby.
Happily, United need only wait a few days to get back on the pitch and recover some momentum ahead of this weekend’s crucial FA Cup semifinal. That match against Tottenham Hotspur affords United their last avenue to silverware this season, so all preparations for Bournemouth must be made with one eye on Wembley.
But the West Brom loss slightly complicates that. No team wants to enter an important cup tie straight off two disheartening losses, so the manager must strike a balance between resting first-choice players and securing a morale-boosting result.
With the Spurs semifinal coming less than three days later, expect plenty of rotation all over the pitch at Bournemouth. Mourinho rarely rests the likes of Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez, and Nemanja Matic, but should strongly consider just that on Wednesday.
Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera both played for less than an hour against West Brom and Scott McTominay could also use some more minutes. Perhaps this would be the perfect occasion for a Marouane Fellaini swan song...
In defense, the manager threw a bit of a curveball with his selection for West Brom. Victor Lindelof replaced Eric Bailly because of the Swede’s passing skills and ability to carry the ball out of the defensive third. One would think that Bailly starts against Spurs, so it will be interesting to see how Mourinho manages his minutes on Wednesday.
Whether Bailly plays at the Vitality Stadium or not, there are plenty of defensive options to keep the first-choice backline rested for the weekend. Don’t be surprised if any or all of Matteo Darmian, Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo, and Luke Shaw get a run-out.
Bournemouth sit 11th in the Premier League table, but are actually closer to relegation than to the top seven. Add in a -15 GD and it’s been a season of struggle for Eddie Howe’s side. With just one win in their last eight, the Poppies look to be limping to the finish line.
But so were West Brom and we all know how that turned out.
After losing at the weekend to Liverpool, Howe is under no illusions that his club’s mid-table placement reflects their recent performances. “We’re in a relegation battle until we’re safe,” the Bournemouth manager declared at his post-match press conference. “The players are aware and there will be no let up from our side with a massive game coming up.”
The United defense will need to keep a careful eye on the dangerous Bournemouth attack of Callum Wilson, Joshua King, and Jermain Defoe. All three played well at Old Trafford in December and only a strong showing by David De Gea kept the Poppies off the scoresheet.
Bournemouth’s emphasis on possession and quick pressing won’t take Manchester United by surprise — but will demand a much sharper effort than the squad delivered at the weekend. The 2017/18 season largely hinges on whether United wins the FA Cup, so an emphatic win over the Poppies could instill some belief for Saturday’s must-win Wembley cup tie.