The team announcements on Tuesday night harked back somewhat to an away game at Wigan in April 2012. Alex Ferguson, the wiliest of old dogs, had rolled the dice that night leaving the newly reinstated Paul Scholes at home in an effort to keep him fresh for the title run in. The gambit failed and United were beaten in a game that would prove costly five weeks later as City won the league on goal difference. Against Burnley on Tuesday night, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer decided to gamble as well, omitting names like Ander Herrera, Anthony Martial (with a minor knock), and Jesse Lingard in an effort to give game time to some peripheral players and keep his star performers fit for the rest of the season.
That Manchester United have been operating on wave of smiling faces and momentum is hardly newsworthy anymore. The first eight games of Solskjaer’s reign have been wholly impressive, including a combination of comfortable and hard fought victories, defensive tours de force and breathtaking attacking football. Solskjaer’s team have showcased a myriad of ways to win games, but what the Norwegian has not yet proven is that his squad are strong enough to cope with the rotation required to sustain a lasting run in the league.
Andreas Pereira’s inclusion on Tuesday night was the biggest surprise, a popular one but arguably a gamble. The highly rated Brazilian has been on the periphery of United’s team since Louis Van Gaal’s reign, never fully getting the opportunity to showcase his vaunted talent in Manchester. Chosen to deputise for the in-form Ander Herrera, who had a run of injuries earlier in the season, Pereira hoped to finally capitalise on his impressive form from pre-season in the United States. His quick passing and ability to contribute in the attacking third showed glimpses of his potential, but no more than he had done against Leicester in August; while his mistake for the opening goal will be remembered similarly to his poor first half performance against Brighton in the following game.
Speaking on Sky Sports at Anfield during Manchester United’s defeat to Liverpool in December, Roy Keane criticised Ashley Young for failing to identify the opponents’ press. “You have to be able to sense danger; you see it, you feel it in your bones.” Keane, the stalwart of the Manchester United team for so many years could sense that danger. He spoke like a sea captain having returned from a lifetime traversing the waves. Keane was that sea captain. He sensed danger, but it was obvious that against Burnley, Pereira — who was operating in the role Keane occupied for so many years — lacked that nose for danger and it proven eminently costly on the night.
Andreas Pereira is a good player, one who spent two seasons in La Liga performing admirably for Granada and Valencia; including a stellar individual performance for Granada against Barcelona. He is the type of player who should have a future at United but Solskjaer’s decision to play him on Tuesday night ultimately proved costly.
There also will be a dilemma for the Manchester United hierarchy in the summer regarding the future of Romelu Lukaku. The current incarnation of Manchester United – a successful, free flowing attack minded football playing team – does not appear to suit the strengths of the big Belgian. Gone are the debates about Lukaku’s first touch, finishing or composure against bigger teams, Lukaku is a real talent but perhaps not one suited to playing with players like Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard or Anthony Martial.
The biggest problem facing Solskjaer and his management team presently – the Old Trafford Boot Room if you will – is that the inclusion of Romelu Lukaku requires a tactical overhaul in every game that he plays, something which will not be conducive to fluent, attacking play expected in the years ahead. The inclusion of Lukaku almost necessitates Manchester United playing deeper in an effort to create space for him in the opposition half. Opponents can push up, confident that Lukaku will make an error in possession which will allow them to recover any ground.
Which brings the real problem for Manchester United and potential rotation as the season progresses; can Paul Pogba be rotated?
In the space of six weeks, Paul Pogba has gone from the periphery of the team to suddenly being the most indispensable member of the squad. Who replaces Paul Pogba in Manchester United’s line up when he doesn’t play? You could argue that Juan Mata or Jesse Lingard could deputise, but neither could replace the speed, skill or eye for a killer ball that Pogba brings.
The Frenchman has long cast aside the shackles of the Mourinho reign and at times on Tuesday night could have been mistaken for a central striker in the Burnley box. He is Manchester United’s Messi, Neymar or Hazard; that player almost beyond tactical instruction or responsibility, that player who can and should be given the freedom to impact the game in any way which he can. It previously only worked against City last year, but this season we have seen countless examples of Pogba dominating games when given the freedom to improvise.
Having Pogba in the team is a phenomenal boon to United’s attack, but it poses the problem of should Pogba not play, are Manchester United suddenly stifled?
That Manchester United team that lost to Wigan in 2012 was too dependent on the creativity of Paul Scholes. While being very different players, there is now a fear that Manchester United are as dependent as Pogba currently as Ferguson’s side were on Paul Scholes in 2012. Since 2015, Paul Pogba has missed twelve consecutive games through injury on two separate occasions, while playing for Juventus and Manchester United. It appears at present that Manchester United do not have a Plan B for Pogba, or possibly even an ability to rotate the mercurcial Frenchman. Fans should hope for now that Pogba’s fitness will be sustained as he seems essential for Manchester United to continue their winning ways.