Manchester United finished their pre-season with a 2-2 draw against AC Milan in International Champions Cup action in Cardiff. Marcus Rashford scored the opening goal in the first half, and Jesse Lingard came off the bench to score a late equalizer. Because the ICC takes itself far too seriously, the match went to penalties. David de Gea saved Milan’s 5th effort, and Daniel James scored the winning penalty.
Rashford and Martial switch it up
So much of the focus on Solskjaer’s preferred attack has been about the installation of Marcus Rashford as the main man up front. It is Rashford’s promotion to lead striker that has pushed Romelu Lukaku out of the team, and perhaps out of the club. But on today’s evidence — and what we’ve seen so far in pre-season — Rashford will spend just as much time in an inside left attacking position. Anthony Martial has played as the nominal no. 9 at least as much as Rashford has, even if they interchanged frequently.
Both Martial and Rashford are unfinished products, and there has been debate for some time over which of them is better in a central position, and which is better cutting in from the left. Rashford’s hold up play is better through the middle, but Martial is the better finisher. Martial is the better dribbler when wide, but Rashford has more consistent delivery. Solskjaer’s tactic of having them both spend time in either position during matches could be an elegant solution.
Matić cannot be trusted
Nemanja Matić was frequently exposed last season for his lack of mobility, and despite getting a summer off and a full pre-season, he doesn’t appear to be improving. For not the first time this summer, he was caught in possession in the first half, this time leading to Suso’s goal. Although still only 31 years old, Matić does not have the legs anymore for a full season of Premier League football.
As much as defensive reinforcements were badly needed, a replacement for Matić is just as important. Scott McTominay looks an improved player this summer, but he can’t be expected to do the running for two players. Bruno Fernandes is a different kind of player, but his addition will allow Paul Pogba to play deeper, and send Matić to the bench. Sean Longstaff is young and mostly unproven, but he has at least has two working legs. Whatever the solution, Matić absolutely cannot be relied upon to be a regular starter this season.
No Pogba, No Party
Paul Pogba has been painfully inconsistent at Manchester United. His comments earlier this summer about wanting “a new challenge” were a disappointment, even though he’s buckled down since then and been professional (unlike his cringe-worthy Belgian mate). He hasn’t been the force that United fans hoped he would be, even if he has been excellent in flashes.
All that said, Pogba is far and away United’s most creative player, and the lack of ideas in midfield when he is not in the team is simply staggering. United have spend far too much money on this squad to still be so dependent on one player to unlock defences. If Pogba were to sustain a serious injury, or spend the season pouting over not getting to move to Madrid, United are destined to be bang average, no matter the improvements in other areas of the team.
Clues in the starting XI
There were some surprises in the starting line-up today, and they may hint at Solskjaer’s thoughts ahead of the Chelsea match next weekend, as well as at incoming signings. Juan Mata started in the no. 10 position in a 4-2-3-1 formation, sometimes drifting right, and other times pressing high as a false 9 when Rashford and Martial occupied either flank (God, tactics-speak is tiresome). What is interesting about this, of course, is that the description of Mata’s role today also sounds like a role tailor-made for a certain Old Trafford-bound (*fingers crossed*) Argentine attacker.
Marcos Rojo, who is rubbish, was clearly a stand in for Harry Maguire, who also prefers to play as a left-sided center back. Assuming that Pogba will replace one of Matić or Andreas Pereira, would it be too giddy to hope that a new midfielder is meant to replace the other? Things could get interesting in the next few days, but if nothing else, we know that Solskjaer knows what he wants his team to look like.
Tuanzebe needs to play
It’s been a given for some time that Victor Lindelöf is United’s best center back, and the pursuit of Harry Maguire was meant to be about finding a worthy partner for the Swede. Against Milan though — and for much of this pre-season — it’s Axel Tuanzebe who has impressed the most in that position. The academy graduate is noticeably stronger after his year on loan, and looks composed and comfortable at senior level.
It would be criminal if Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, and Marcos Rojo were all still at the club at the start of the season, but even if they are (god forbid), Tuanzebe should be ahead of all of them in the pecking order.