Manchester United may have had a couple months off during the COVID-19 suspension of football, but the loaded schedule — designed to finish the 2019/20 season by summer’s end — still presents a potential problem for manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
One of the issues we’ve seen from Solskjaer in his year and a half in charge is his inability to find a healthy squad rotation. The United boss has already had to deal with arguably his two best players, Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba, being out for extended periods due to injury. Rashford’s injury in particular was almost certainly exacerbated by his undroppable status and the team’s reliance on his goals.
Similarly, the wave of injuries that hit the squad in Solskjaer’s caretaker period last year helped expose the lack of depth at United, and motivated the club to start another squad overhaul — eventually leading to the Bruno Fernandes deal getting done this past January. Bruno’s impact has been felt, as has the return of Pogba and Rashford since the restart, but Solskjaer must be careful when managing his starters’ minutes. Solskjaer is in a position in which he cannot afford poor results or the loss of his very best talent, and just 4 games in we have already seen some of the effects of this challenge.
The FA Cup quarterfinal win over Norwich City was not nearly as ideal as the matchup looked for United initially. Norwich are one of the few teams that were played off the park by United in both Premier League fixtures, and both matches were opportunities for strikers Rashford and Anthony Martial to get some target practice. The Canaries are almost certainly doomed to a return to the Championship, currently bottom of the table and 7 points adrift. Cup fixtures can sometimes bring out the best in poor sides, but for the most part it was United who were simply inadequate, which left room for just one chance to change things for Norwich and force extra time.
Solskjaer went with a rotated starting XI, but kept some key players, such as captain Harry Maguire, first-choice left-back Luke Shaw, and a midfield of Fred, Scott McTominay, and Bruno Fernandes. Despite dominating the ball, United’s buildup play was sorely lacking. Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata were totally ineffective, as were full-backs Shaw and Diogo Dalot. The absence of quality on the wings led to several bottled possessions for United, and cut off service to Odion Ighalo for much of the game. Fortunately, it doesn’t take much for Ighalo to turn a chance in the area into a goal, and the on-loan striker gave United the lead off of a drilled cross.
Despite Solskjaer sending on Rashford and Mason Greenwood to try and kill the game off, the midfield continued to struggle to create chances. By late in the second half, Bruno was making tired mistakes, but was not replaced. Pogba, Nemanja Matić, and Martial would also come on, but Norwich’s thoroughly parked bus proved enough to hold United back until the final minutes of extra time.
It’s fair to say most of the squad looked tired on Saturday, but a totally different United played Brighton & Hove Albion off the Amex field just 3 days later. Bruno in particular was exceptional, scoring twice in a 3-0 win against the gulls. It was the sort of performance that, paired with a 3-0 win over Sheffield United, has given United fans hope that the club could finally be building something sustainable. A first-choice XI has emerged, and this team is a force to be reckoned with when firing on all cylinders.
Ole has to find a balanced rotation that works for the squad’s stamina without damaging the team’s ambitions. It may be a bit early to say that Bruno should have been benched, as proven by Bruno himself, but aside from the glowing display of football we’ve seen from a full-strength United, we’ve seen little from the second unit to inspire confidence in a near-fully rotated team.
Pogba and Bruno are center-pieces to the success of this team, there is no questioning that. Ole has shown his willingness to start Bruno with rotated sides — both recently and in the Europa League pre-COVID — but he should also consider starting Pogba at the no. 10 sometimes as well. Pogba excelled there under Solskjaer during the interim period last season, and particularly against weaker opponents, the shift keeps arguably United’s best player in a forward role.
The depth in defensive midfield allows for 2 players to rest while both Bruno and Pogba play, which ideally keeps legs fresh to play in behind the creators when one of those two are alone in the lineup, and most importantly allows Ole to avoid rotating too heavily from game to game. Defensive midfield and left-back can be rotated without too much of a drop in talent, and United have options that can change depending on the challenges of an opponent. The right side of the attack looks more and more like Mason Greenwood’s position to lose, but Daniel James offers a more traditional winger option to that role. A healthy Eric Bailly can switch in at centre back as well. The options are there for Solskjaer, it’s just up to him to find how best to take advantage.
What we saw from the Spurs and Norwich games was indicative of past matches where Ole didn’t nail the starting lineup, but it also showed that he is capable of using quality off the bench if it is available to him. If he starts experimenting with his lineup now before several players start wearing down at once, he may be able to find a nice balance of first-choice and second teamers. While developing the chemistry of the first-choice XI is important, running them into the ground only defeats the purpose. There is almost no room for error for teams chasing Champions League qualification, and even less room for the Manchester United manager.