Which Paul Pogba will show up?
Here’s a sobering reality: Manchester United’s best player, only reliable creative force, and only real midfielder are all the same player, and that player doesn’t even want to be here. Pogba was widely expected to be at the center of a transfer tug-of-war between United and Real Madrid this summer, and hinted at his desire for a “new challenge” in June. But Madrid never stumped up the cash, United never entertained any offer, and now Pogba is set to stay (for now). Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has made Pogba the centerpiece of this team — by force, since the other midfielders are has-beens and never-weres — and now the hot-and-cold Frenchman has a massive season ahead.
On the one hand, being forced to play next to the corpse of Nemanja Matić for any extended period of time is cause for Pogba sue his employers for physical and emotional abuse. And for a player who already has previous for downing tools, if Pogba decides to sulk his way through the season, United will struggle to finish above Everton and Wolves, never mind win anything. On the other hand, if Pogba decides to shut his critics up and accepts the challenge of leading this young United team to the next level (either through renewed commitment or an effort to get Madrid’s attention, doesn’t matter), the Reds could have a surprisingly successful season. - BM
Who should be the first choice centre forward: Rashford or Martial?
Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford are yet again competing for the same starting position, though this time the other would simply start on the wing. It is an important question though because of the exit of Romelu Lukaku. United’s striking options are limited now, and Solskjaer needs these two to step up. They’ve been the young attackers full of potential for 4 seasons, now they’re the experienced ones. - CD
Can two starting positions be filled by committee?
For all the doom and gloom about United’s (lack of) recruitment this summer, the club clearly upgraded two starting positions, and the team now has a clear first-choice back 4 for the first time in ages. In Solskjaer’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, Pogba and Scott McTominay look set to start in midfield, and Rashford and Martial are locks for two of the attacking places. The other two spots though, are questions marks. Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata are the most likely to rotate between wide right and attacking midfield, with both men filling in either position.
Neither Mata nor Lingard should be starters though. Mata is best centrally, but is in decline. On the right, he lacks the pace to beat anyone. Lingard has the pace to play on the right, and presses harder than any other attacker when central, but his passing isn’t good enough to be a regular starter in either role. Dan James will play on the right as well, but is too raw to be relied upon. That leaves only Angel Gomes, Tahith Chong (who would be better served by a loan), and Mason Greenwood as options for those two spots. All exciting players, all children. Solskjaer will have to find a regular solution very early on for those two positions, or else he may find himself chopping and changing throughout the season, to the detriment of team chemistry. - BM
Can Solskjaer qualify for the Champions League?
This really is the big one. The standard set by Ed Woodward for his managers has been Champions League qualification, whether by league finish or Europa League. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has had a positive influence as manager, but a lot is expected of him this season. His personality won’t turn sour and split fans like managers before him, but if the results don’t come the support won’t stay.
Of course, Ole hasn’t been dealt a very good hand. This transfer window has only really addressed 2 holes in the starting lineup, and regulars Lukaku and Ander Herrera have both left without being replaced. He’ll have to rely on youth. - CD
Are United fit enough for Solskjaer’s system?
Like a dog taken off it’s leash, when United played its first matches under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the team bolted — thrashing their opponents to the tune of a +11 goal differential. We mused shortly before their first leg against Paris Saint-Germain that United might run out of gas, but the possibilities for the squad seemed endless by the end of the Miracle in Paris as each successful counterattack erased the memory of José Mourinho. But also like a dog running all out, United found themselves panting on the cold tile floor watching the Premier League top four slip away shortly after their Champions League heroics.
Entering the 2019-20 season, Solskjaer has teased a new system of attack for his players and it was on display during the preseason. When United was without the ball, the advanced players pressed aggressively in the opponent’s defensive half — albeit in matches where the whole bench was subbed in like a hockey line-switch.
More importantly, United added signings in areas they severely lacked pace last season. Ashley Young and Chris Smalling/Phil Jones have been replaced with younger, pacier, hungrier versions in Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire. The right side of the pitch is a whole new area for Solskjaer to get creative after we watched the team have to compensate for the liability of Young’s play last season. Wan-Bissaka was a juggernaut in the preseason, and, if he locks down the right side as effectively in the league campaign, expect to see the likes of Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and, perhaps, Daniel James killing their opponents with pace late into the match because they didn’t have to track back all 90 minutes.
I expect there will still be growing pains as the team navigates its way through congested weeks domestically and abroad, but the team has trained all summer to work in Solskjaer’s system and the team got younger, faster, and will likely dip into the youth ranks for more depth. I hope everyone is ready for swashbuckling results this year.