Ole Gunnar Solskjær has managed to land two of the transfers of the summer in Jadon Sancho and Raphaël Varane. For a combined fee of around £110 million, the pair should elevate Manchester United to the next level, where they will be wanting to seriously compete for the major honours.
With title-winning sides, there are ingredients which are commonly known among fans alike. A strong defence is one, with Sir Alex Ferguson famously saying “attack wins you games, defence wins you titles”. Another one of those ingredients is ‘knowing your best team’.Embed from Getty Images
While Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City team have somewhat ignored this part of the recipe, it is mostly due to their incredible squad depth. Usually, most successful teams have a fixed 11 that the manager believes to be the strongest, with members on the bench playing their part too.
Solskjær has a tough decision when trying to find his best XI, particularly in the midfield and attack, with a lot of talent at his disposal in the offence. However, it seems that there is a general consensus that the Norwegian has a solid defensive base already and it’s clear where Varane will slot in.
Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw are the clear and obvious starters in the backline on the left-hand side. Meanwhile, Aaron Wan-Bissaka is the starting right-back (although reports suggest that Solskjær would like to sign Kieran Trippier from Atletico Madrid to challenge the 23-year-old) and Victor Lindelöf was Maguire’s partner throughout last season, yet the introduction of Varane will demote the Swede to the bench due to the fact that his skillset is very complimentary to the United captain.
Reports suggest that the United manager would like a change to a more offensive 4-3-3, however, he has lined up his sides in the usual 4-2-3-1 in pre-season so far and his first-team members have had little time to train into a new formation. This suggests that while Solskjær’s preference might be to change shape, he might have to stick with the double pivot for at least a period of the season.
If he does continue with the 2-1, there is a decision to be made of who to play in the heart of the midfield. Fred and Scott McTominay were the preferred pairing throughout the majority of last season, with their energy being key in covering a lot of ground in Solskjær’s system. Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic are the other options in this position.
Although Pogba and Matic are perhaps more naturally talented footballers than their counterparts, there’s a worry whether the latter, at 34 years of age, can be a starter for the majority of a campaign and whether the former is not better utilised in a more advanced position.
There are reports that United are looking for a midfielder who would slot into the starting team, but at this current moment you would assume that the manager would continue to opt for a pivot consisting of Fred and McTominay, even with their deficiencies, and have United’s no.6 rotate in the pivot depending on the opposition.
Of course, Bruno Fernandes will man the number ten position after an incredible 18 months at the club so far. However, it will also be likely to see more of Donny van de Beek next season, which will give Solskjær good options. Now that Sancho is at the club, there is another on-ball creator in the XI, giving Donny licence to roam into advanced positions and spaces, without losing creativity levels. Yet, in the strongest United team, Fernandes is one of the first names on the team sheet.Embed from Getty Images
The frontline is where things get interesting, with a lot of talent across the board. Although, the number nine position will clearly be occupied by Edinson Cavani, who proved his worth in his debut campaign last season with 17 goals to his name. However, at 34 years of age, it is unlikely that the Uruguayan will be able to start every game, it’s likely that Anthony Martial or Mason Greenwood will replace him through the centre when this is the case.
Alongside El Matador, it’s expected that Jadon Sancho will slot into the frontline nicely. However, it’s unknown whether Solskjaer will look to utilise him on the left or right flank. You’d assume that United’s new no.25 would operate from the right side when Marcus Rashford returns to the fold (which should be around October), however, with his English comrade out for the beginning of the season, Sancho could be seen on either flank with either Mason Greenwood (right) or Paul Pogba (left) on the opposite flank depending on which side Jadon is put on.
However, the beauty with how the wingers at Old Trafford operate is the fact that they are usually looking to interchange positions when in the attack and it won’t be a surprise to Sancho, who has been used to roaming across the frontline in Germany.
While Marcus Rashford will likely be in the starting XI when he returns from injury, frontlines from left to right of either ‘Sancho, Cavani, Greenwood’ or ‘Pogba, Cavani, Sancho’ are very strong and could potentially make a difficult return to the XI for United’s no.10. There is also the case of Martial, since if the Frenchman can return to his form of 2019/20, he will also be competing for a position in the frontline.
So. Looking at the current side, the strongest line-up could look something like this at Old Trafford:
Henderson; Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Varane, Maguire, Shaw; McTominay, Fred, Fernandes; Sancho, Cavani, Pogba. (4-2-3-1)
While you could look at having Sancho on the left and Greenwood on the right, you can not ignore the potential creativity levels of having all three of Pogba, Fernandes and Sancho in advanced areas. It’s frightening.
You wouldn’t have the pure pace of someone like Rashford; but you would have Sancho, Cavani and Bruno making runs and Pogba offering hold-up play in the final third really well like he’s shown to be able to do.
The elephant in the room is definitely the midfield pivot. A weak point certainly and hopefully an extra addition to the squad before deadline day will be able to slot in next to either McTominay or Fred in order to improve the progression and overall stability of the team. However, with Rashford out of the picture at the start of the season, Pogba would probably be better off playing in a more advanced position, as he showed how well he can play in a position like that through periods of last season.
There are questions rising whether or not Ole will look to involve Matic more often in the league, however with the way that Solskjær likes his pivot to play, it would be surprising to see the Serbian start more than a handful of matches in the league.
With players such as Saul Niguez, Eduardo Camavinga and Ruben Neves in United’s sights, there will hopefully be improvement in this position before the beginning of the season, as other than in central midfield, United have a very strong starting XI.