Manchester United host Newcastle United at Old Trafford in the Premier League on Sunday as the Reds settle into their new Thursday-Sunday routine. United return to domestic duties after a fabulous team performance and 4-0 first leg away win against Real Sociedad in the Europa League knockout stages.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær resisted the temptation to rest key players in the entertaining encounter in Turin and his gamble paid off handsomely. United now have a comfortable lead for the second leg at home. Not only does that take the pressure off progressing to the last 16, the manager can safely rotate more of his players – before facing Chelsea next weekend – giving vital minutes or recovery as required. As a result, the immediate fixture schedule looks much more manageable. Expect to see more of the same in first leg ties in the Europa League.
The less said about West Brom last weekend the better. Following three draws, one win, and one defeat in United’s previous five matches in the league, Solskjær’s side need to get back to winning ways to stay ahead of the chasing pack. Six points separate United in second and Liverpool in sixth with Leicester, Chelsea, and West Ham in between.
Solskjær: "He [Mata] has been away for a little while — against West Brom you wonder what he might have done. He is travelling with us [to Turin]." #mulive— utdreport (@utdreport) February 17, 2021
An honest admission from the manager about United missing Juan Mata in a pinch though not why he has been AWOL.
Mystery unsolved, the diminutive Spaniard is back and boy do United need him. Mata replaced Bruno Fernandes on 83 minutes on Thursday and should start against Newcastle in the same position. Fernandes might be unbreakable but, rather than test that theory too far, United have the opportunity to protect him in the next two fixtures after a gruelling few months.
United’s upcoming fixtures: Chelsea, Manchester City, and West Ham in the league, Leicester City in the FA Cup, and, most likely, another Europa League outing sandwiched in the middle of March. Solskjær will want Fernandes for five out of six of those.
In a recent poll of tBB readers, nearly half would like to see a McVDB midfield double pivot in the absence of Paul Pogba. We may see this soon, and there’s still hope for Donny van de Beek, but perhaps not just yet. Van de Beek didn’t travel to Turin and it would be a surprise if he was trusted with this weekend’s league game even against a struggling side. There will also be a less pressured opportunity next Thursday if Van de Beek is available.
Meanwhile, in-form Scott McTominay was substituted on the hour despite another towering display in midfield against Sociedad. McTominay is a doubt for Newcastle which breaks up the possibility of falling back on the McFred partnership.
Fred and McTominay worked well together in Turin as Sociedad were open and attacked United. It would be unlikely to see Newcastle do the same at Old Trafford. You only need to go as far back as West Brom last weekend to see continued evidence of United struggling for creativity with the McFred duo tasked with breaking down a negative team. Granted, United’s forwards didn’t help their midfielders last Sunday showing to feet rather than spinning defenders, but the stale predictability began in midfield.
More simply, United do not need two defensively minded no. 8s covering each other against teams sitting deep. Hoping that Fred and McTominay can gradually, or suddenly, work in tandem effectively in these situations increasingly seems like signs of madness.
Only 3% of tBB readers were interested in Nemanja Matić and Fred in the middle – the least preferred option along with ‘Other’ (Woodward, sign him up etc.) – but we got just that in Turin for half an hour. Almost immediately, Fred, no longer minded with screening the back four, threaded a long pass releasing Marcus Rashford for his goal. United eventually then added a fourth doubling their lead after Matić replaced McTominay.
There won’t be as much space in front of Fred for him to work with at the weekend but it will be a rare chance to shine in otherwise ideal conditions.
Anthony Martial has been given plenty of opportunities recently, always in his preferred position on the left wing, and has taken none of them. Newcastle is another occasion to play Martial into form. Unfortunately, we have now reached the point where Martial’s form is hurting the team. The scalding of being left out may awaken something inside Martial when he’s next given the chance. Besides, Daniel James will be full of confidence following his goal, assist, and performance on Thursday and has earned a starting place again at the weekend.
Hopefully, Edinson Cavani returns and starts up front on Sunday. And like Fernandes, Rashford could then finally sit out a couple of games.
Solskjær stuck with David de Gea against West Brom. United’s no. 1 was still shaky at times but did produce a remarkable double-save to prevent them from going behind near the end of the match. The Europa League resuming gives the manager scope to play both goalkeepers regularly and duck a decision that doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. Dean Henderson’s commanding display against Sociedad will have done him no harm.