As if perverse reward for their humbling defeat to Everton at the weekend, a loss which was their sixth in eight games, Manchester United welcome a title-chasing Manchester City to Old Trafford on Wednesday night finding themselves in a strange scenario. Hardly palatable to United or their supporters; victory for City would almost guarantee their second consecutive Premier League title whereas anything but victory for City would hand Liverpool their first Championship since 1990.
There have been calls for Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to rotate his side for the game – and while some of these calls have been cynical, aiming to prevent a Liverpool title and resurgence in English football – there is a genuine case for rotation in advance of City’s visit.
Despite an initial barnstorming beginning to his managerial reign at Old Trafford, Solskjaer’s team of high intensity steamrollers have slowed to a light chug as the season has progressed. The Norwegian’s insistence on work rate and running has taken a physical toll on the United squad. Under José Mourinho, Manchester United were more concerned with defensive shape, operating at a slower tempo and even failing to outrun their opponents in each of the first thirteen games of the season.
There is a growing belief that a general lack of squad fitness may be the root cause of United’s recent decline. In a manner similar to Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool in 2015-16, United are struggling to maintain their intensity as the season concludes. Solskjaer has suggested that it is something that he and his coaching team will target in preseason.
Solskjaer himself has stoked a secondary argument for rotation in recent days. Prior to the Everton game, the United manager appeared unhappy, telling the media that certain players “need a reality check,” a suggestion that some players were not providing the work rate and graft required by their manager.
In the aftermath of the 4-0 defeat at Goodison Park, a game in which United were outclassed in every area of the field and failed to register a shot on target until the 86th minute, Solskjaer told the media that he would be a success at Old Trafford “and there are players there that won’t be part of that successful team.” To observers on Sunday, it was apparent that there was more amiss with the team that a mere lack of fitness.
It is only natural that in the aftermath of such a devastating defeat that the manager would attempt to identify the underperforming mercenaries within his team, those not devoted to the cause or willing to show fight in the battle. Would dropping certain — highly paid — players be unprofessional towards the integrity of the league or increase Manchester City’s likelihood of winning? If considering the performance level of the Everton game on Sunday as a benchmark, then probably not.
A defeat of the magnitude the Everton game should bring changes to the Manchester United starting XI, regardless of the next opposition side. It is expected that the summer will bring high profile casualties to the Manchester United dressing room with the Norwegian manager moving out any players who do not meet his standards.
There is still more to play for this season for Manchester United than merely anointing the Premier League champions. United have four games remaining and are still in the chase for Champions League qualification. The problems facing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is that his team appear either unable or unwilling to follow his strategy. Rotating the squad on Wednesday night might serve to energise some and motivate others for the remainder of the season.
From a strategic perspective, the Manchester City game is the least winnable of Manchester United’s remaining fixtures. United’s recent form, coupled with their ongoing home struggles against City - just four wins in the last ten meetings dating back to 2010 - indicate that the trojan effort required to defeat City would be futile, merely serving to diminish United’s reserves for the remainder of the season.
The next five days bring formidable opposition to Old Trafford with Manchester City on Wednesday and Chelsea on Sunday. Chelsea are currently three points ahead of United having played an extra game, though their goal difference is far superior.
Solskjaer and his coaching team should instead focus on keeping United’s players fresh with an eye on more winnable games – starting with Chelsea on Sunday. Chelsea is a more important scalp than City at this time of the year.
Regardless of the result on Wednesday night, should Manchester United fail to beat Chelsea, they will have no chance of Champions League qualification. Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham each have European commitments as the season reaches its conclusion and United will hope that their freshness in the final stretch will serve them the best chance of guaranteeing top level European football next season.