Football Christmas? Not quite. But it’s back and Manchester United have nine games in five weeks, plus at least one cup fixture, to wrap up the domestic competitions. For what it’s worth.
At a glance, a kind run of league fixtures until you consider that only two of these are against teams with little to play for — potentially one if Southampton get dragged back into a relegation battle. Far from easy for United, particularly as player motivations are bound to play a significant part in light of *gestures at everything* unless you’re especially focussed on fighting for Premier League or European football next season.
Pre-shutdown form is out the window. Over three months of relentlessly and increasingly overwhelming news and restricted routines will have seen to that. Which is a shame for United, in the context of football, given they are 11 unbeaten and most recently bested City for the second time this season. However, in the reopening set of catch-up fixtures on Wednesday, Arsenal and David Luiz showed there’s some cause for optimism that getting back into a familiar groove is eminently achievable. So we will cherry-pick either logic to fit our agenda in each scenario.
United’s opening two matches will define their mini-season. Bad results against Tottenham and then Sheffield United — before they play each other in a couple of weeks — would not set up back-to-back meetings with clubs intent on more top-flight football at all well.
Playing the better sides often suits United under Ole Gunnar Solskjær and they will need momentum from these two games rather than early disillusion. A longstanding pattern of struggling against motivated teams in the bottom half of the table persists — incentive will be key to prevent several heads dropping and shoulders shrugging when trying to break them down.
Solskjær will want to face Leicester City on Sunday 26 July with a chance of a Champions League spot. Spurs and José Mourinho are similarly vying to rewrite their season. A draw in London suits United more — defeat for either could be seismic.
Of all the United players needing to take stock during the enforced hiatus, David de Gea is up there. 2020 has been better for the Spaniard on the whole but seeds of doubt remain after years of dependable, at times outrageous, service — often with a risible defence in front of him. United’s back four is finally settling down now and it would be welcome if De Gea could too.
Made many, many people look very, very foolish to write Fred off so quickly and so early into his United career. Fundamental to United’s uptick in form before the break and has helped release Bruno Fernandes. Long may it continue.
Mourinho chose to focus on Paul Pogba ahead of the match clearly to be disruptive, as per. Solskjær will do well to ignore his predecessor and concentrate on getting the best out of Fernandes in his selection on Friday. Bruno’s earned it.
Hasn’t featured since 2019. Needs to justify his place back in the side and at the manager’s discretion. It would be a huge surprise to see Pogba start immediately, even with a three-month clean slate, despite the temptation to partner him with Fernandes in a potentially mouthwatering midfield.
United’s leading goalscorer this season is back after what would have been the rest of the campaign out since January.
I should have made that more clear. Who in the Government is responsible for the scheme?— Marcus Rashford (@MarcusRashford) June 10, 2020
The boy Rashford took to Twitter in the ultimate ‘I want to speak to your manager’ spearheading a campaign to lobby a shameless UK government and got a resolution in five days. We are all so proud of you.
A goal for the 22-year-old this week would be rather emotional even in the most sterile of circumstances. Here’s hoping.