With Manchester United (finally) qualifying for the quarterfinals of the Europa League, the Reds now officially have up to three more matches to conclude this interminably long season.
Since United already secured Champions League football next season through their league position, the club no longer have to win the Europa League. The question now is: how should Ole Gunnar Solskjaer approach the competition? Go all out to win the trophy, or hold back and give his top players rest with the quick turnaround to next season (which will also be condensed)?
The answer is obvious. You try to win the trophy.
That’s what football is about: winning trophies. Not to mention, for Solskjaer at least, winning a trophy in his first full season will look really good on his resume. For the rest of this very young team, winning a trophy would be a good experience and be very good for their psyche. They’ll get a small taste of winning now and be hungry for more later.
However, we also just saw Solskjaer completely burn out his top eleven players chasing the top four at the end of the Premier League. That is not something we want to see happen again.
There are only 21 days between the Europa League final and the start of the Premier League season. There have been reports that United could get a staggered start — an extra week — but we don’t know if that will happen yet (and that game to be made up will just be added somewhere else in an already packed schedule).
So what do you do?
You don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, that’s what.
United have been given a golden opportunity this year, something that never gets offered to top clubs. Competitive preseason games.
United’s quarterfinal match against FC Copenhagen will take place on August 10th — 33 days before the start of the Premier League season. A potential Europa League semi-final would be 27 days before the Premier League kicks off.
This is right in the time frame of where teams would usually begin playing preseason friendlies. Last summer, United’s first preseason match against Perth was played 29 days before their opening Premier League match against Chelsea.
In the early preseason friendlies, United’s top players would play about 45 minutes a game. The caveat is that the players typically wouldn’t have played in about six weeks (if there’s an international tournament those players typically don’t play in the first few friendlies at all).
This year, United had all of 10 days off. There’s no argument that the top players need rest. But at the same time, they also need to start preparing for next season. That’s where this Europa League really helps them.
If United weren’t playing this August, it would be about six weeks between games for them. They’d probably give the players two weeks off before preparations for next season began and then they’d probably look to play two or three friendlies to get their fitness levels up.
With the Europa League, Solskjaer was given four games where he could use his squad. He won’t need to use his best XI until the final (possibly the semifinal, but he could probably get by resting some players with the right team selection). The five substitution rule (which is going bye-bye in the Premier League next season) is still in effect, so Solskjaer can still make a good number of changes each match to limit players’ minutes.
Even if United make the final, they’ll have 21-28 days before the season begins. They can still give the players 10-14 days off, and play at least one friendly before the season starts.
Pre-season friendlies have two purposes: work on potential new tactics, and build up the players’ fitness levels — the latter of which you no longer need if the players don’t lose their fitness levels in the first place.
You will always get more and learn more from competitive matches than you will from friendlies. No matter how many friendlies a team plays over the summer, the first game of the season is still a wake up call because that “real match intensity” is never matched in friendlies.
Should United go all the way in the Europa League, they’ll be at an advantage upon returning to the Premier League. They’ll have been given a chance to maintain their fitness levels while everyone else is losing theirs, and they’ll only be about three weeks removed from a competitive match. That’s plenty of time to rest the legs of the starters, have them play 45-60 minutes of one friendly just to make sure their levels don’t drop, and then be ready to go for next season.
Solskjaer’s team selection against LASK suggest this is the route he is looking to take.
With United holding a 5-0 aggregate lead many fans, including myself, thought he would/should throw out a heavily rotated “Just Don’t Lose 6-0 XI” featuring the likes of James Garner, Teden Mengi, Ethan Laird, and other academy players. If the game was played in March as it was originally scheduled, the team probably would have featured many youngsters, but that was never realistic for Wednesday as the academy players only returned to training last week. Garner, Laird, and Mengi have been training with the first team but all of the other youngsters are lacking match fitness.
Solskjaer did throw out a heavily rotated side, but it was more like the one that he trotted out against Norwich in the FA Cup.
As much as we wanted to see James Garner, in hindsight this made sense. If you don’t want Solskjaer running the first XI out in all three remaining games, then he’s going to need to call on the other players in his squad.
Of the 10 outfield players in the starting XI, only Harry Maguire, Brandon Williams, Eric Bailly, and Odion Ighalo have played at least 90 minutes in a match since the restart. Fred hadn’t played substantial minutes in two weeks, Scott McTominay in nearly three. If you’re going to call on them next week, those guys need minutes to regain their match fitness too!
Fans were moaning when Solskjaer introduced Paul Pogba after an hour but again, as much as these guys need rest they also need minutes to maintain their sharpness. If they don’t play now, they’ll just have to play more friendlies closer to the season so they can get their levels up.
This is now, effectively, pre-season football. Thirty minutes in a semi-competitive game is the same thing as 45 minutes in a friendly against Perth.
I’d expect a few more starters to come in to the team against Copenhagen on Monday with the others appearing as subs. If Solskjaer keeps everyone’s bodies accustomed to matches now, without overworking them, it’ll pay off at the start of next season when everyone else has to restart from scratch.
United have been given a rare opportunity to keep their fitness levels and match sharpness up all through the summer break, while competing for a real trophy. They should take advantage of that.