Manchester United sit top of the Premier League at the halfway stage of the season. Away to Fulham, United made it 13 unbeaten in the league, grinding out three points with a laboured if dominant performance at Craven Cottage.
United’s reward is being six points clear of Liverpool who they host at Old Trafford in the fourth round of the FA Cup on Sunday. What a jolly home crowd that would have made.
In no particular order: Bruno Fernandes, Luke Shaw, Paul Pogba, Harry Maguire, and Marcus Rashford all need a well-deserved rest this weekend with their feet up at home. And again in midweek before Arsenal away.
Anthony Martial and Aaron Wan-Bissaka also require a break, ideally with a bit more soul-searching.
The predictable 0-0 draw against Liverpool in the league last weekend wasted everyone’s time and attention. Such sharp, unavoidable focus on one match threatened to derail the next – United, though, persevered in wintery conditions at Fulham and after going a goal down. Both were tense affairs for United.
A raft of changes are expected from United and Liverpool when they meet again. Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s attitude to the FA Cup may be warmer than Jürgen Klopp’s but both managers will be mindful of the fixture treadmill and where their priorities now lie this season.
Along with freshening up the sides, Sunday – for United, at least – represents a chance to play with more freedom and abandon after two gruelling games.
United’s problem position remains on the right side of the attack. It will be tempting to simply plug the area out wide with Juan Mata – as Mata has done so many times before – and give Donny van de Beek the plumb role behind the forwards.
More likely is the same team which progressed in the third round. If tweaked, Mata may find himself in the middle with Van de Beek again orchestrating from central midfield.
Given, however, the hesitancy and opportunity missed at Anfield last week, Solskjær could opt to be braver at home with a midfield diamond and a give-and-go pair of strikers. Even if it confuses the hell out of Scott McTominay.
Whichever way United set up, seeing two excellent no. 10s on the field and neither in their preferred position feels like a complete waste. And continued evidence of United’s urgency for a wide-right specialist.
Needs a central role and a good performance to get back on track. Preferably alongside Edinson Cavani.
If and when the newly-signed 18-year-old is ready, the opportunity is wide open. A debut off the bench against a tired Liverpool in the FA Cup at Old Trafford would be the dream.