I’ve been trying to avoid talking about Manchester United and the timing of this suspension because in the grand scheme of things it just seems so trivial. But this is a Manchester United blog and in the context of just that, I still have some thoughts.
On Friday I spoke with some people who were saying this break would be really good for United. The players would get rest, Paul Pogba was going to return soon, and when the Premier League finally does return, Marcus Rashford will be close to coming back too. That’ll be huge for Untied in the run in.
Yea, except it won’t.
Other than Liverpool — and the fact that there’s a non-zero chance that they may not win the title — the timing of this break is worse for United than anyone else.
United were in the best form of their season: unbeaten in 11, keeping a clean sheet in nine of those. They were playing good football, and for the first time all season had finally developed some depth. They had three midfielders for two spots! When have we been able to say that this year?
Up front Anthony Martial was continuing to play well, and Dan James was rounding back into form. More importantly, Odion Ighalo wasn’t just eating minutes in cup matches, he was scoring goals too. This drastically eased the burden on Martial.
With the 5-0 demolition of LASK, United had about one and a half feet in the quarterfinals of the Europa League. They could have rotated their squad for the second leg, heavily. I’m talking Andreas Pereira, Jesse Lingard, and Phil Jones, and qualified for the next round. Then they’d have a fresh squad to take on Norwich, a team they’ve handily beaten twice this year, in the quarterfinals of the FA Cup.
It’s not ridiculous to suggest that heading in to the international break, United would have been in the quarterfinals of the Europa League and semifinals of the FA Cup.
If there was a team that was perfectly setting itself up for the run in by getting fit and rounding into form, it was Manchester United.
And what about the league?
United were set to face José Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur and let me tell ya, there was no better time to face them. That Tottenham team was a dead man walking. Without Harry Kane or Heung-Min Son they have no attack. Even worse, the rest of the team looked just as lifeless.
It’d be one thing if Tottenham were playing well but couldn’t score because they didn’t have a striker, but that wasn’t even the case. For all the talk about Mourinho being a defensive coach, he hasn’t even fixed their defense! Tottenham had an xGA per game under Mauricio Pochettino this season of 1.42. Under Mourinho, their xGA per game is 1.62. Not much worse, but certainly not better!
Tottenham were ripe for the picking this week, and while all the signs pointed towards the classic “letdown” match that has become a pattern this year, you would have really had to fancy United to get the three points. Plus Chelsea were facing the equally lifeless Aston Villa, and we all know how United love to copy Chelsea’s results every week.
So yes, United will get Pogba back and probably Rashford too. Dan James and Anthony Martial will get some more much needed rest. But so will everyone else.
When the season finally picks up, Kane will probably be back for Spurs. Perhaps Son too. Tammy Abraham will be back for Chelsea, and so will Christian Pulisic. Ricardo Pereira is facing a long term injury, but Wilfred Ndidi should be back. Leicester City’s poor form has “coincidentally” coincided right with Ndidi going down with injury. Wolves and Sheffield United both have paper thin squads — this break will only give them more rest too.
United also had one more weapon. Mason Greenwood. The 18-year-old has only played 645 minutes in the Premier League this year, and 1439 first team minutes. He’s fresh as can be and I have no doubts that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was going to use him more down the stretch.
Fresh legs is a huge advantage. Look at what Divock Origi did in the final months of the season last year. That’s because he barely played in the first half of the season. Callum Hudson-Odoi popped up at the business end to great success too. Greenwood was the best player on the pitch in his full debut against Cardiff. Part of that is because those players all had fresh legs running against players who had a whole season of wear and tear on theirs.
That advantage is now gone.
Whenever the league does resume I’d still fancy United to finish in the top four, whatever that means. Who knows what’s going to happen with the Champions League next year anyway.