Ole Gunnar Solskjær had a very limited number of senior first team players at his disposal for the duration of pre-season. With that, it feels like the starting XI for the home Premier League opener against Leeds on Saturday — for the most part — should really pick itself. And yet, there are still a few questions to be answered over the next few days.
Will new boys Jadon Sancho and Raphaël Varane start? The former will have just under a week of pre-season training under his belt by the time Manchester United tip off their 2021/22 campaign on the weekend. In the Frenchman’s case, it will be even less. But by the noises coming out of Carrington, the former Real Madrid anchor is expected to be officially unveiled by the club on Thursday — with the intentions of diving straight into training and attempting to impress his new manager.
Varane is the only real unknown at the back, with Victor Lindelöf ready and somewhat expected to start alongside Harry Maguire. Dean Henderson‘s post-covid recovery issues mean that David de Gea will retain the gloves. Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw are key.
There also seems to be little confusion up front. If Sancho isn’t ready, then chances are we will see the same forward trio that started the dress rehearsal against Everton, with Mason Greenwood and Daniel James having full preparation periods under their belt to compliment the returning Anthony Martial.
The midfield is where the real selection headache will kick in for Solskjær. Out of all the players available, only Nemanja Matic and James Garner have been in pre-season from start to finish. The latter is highly unlikely to start with a loan move looming. The big Serb on the other hand should. Having looked good in the friendlies, he would provide much needed stability at the heart of United’s engine room.
Over the last couple of seasons, Matic has picked up a tendency of looking like he is on his last legs when out on the pitch. But it feels as though using him fresh off a holiday and following a solid preparation period is probably the ideal moment to strike while the iron is hot. Solskjær will recognize that. The big question then is who partners him.Embed from Getty Images
Fred, Scott McTominay and Paul Pogba are the obvious options for the boss to choose from. Donny van de Beek is also available and a bit of a wild card. The Dutchman started against Everton last weekend and looked very good playing a deeper role, next to Matic. If the term dress rehearsal is to be taken literally, perhaps Solskjær is planning on throwing van de Beek right into the deep end against an undoubtedly fit and tenacious Marcelo Bielsa Leeds side.
Van de Beek has bulked up over the last few months and certainly looks more ready to tackle the demands of Premier League football head on this time around. His ability to progress the ball and do it quickly is also very appealing from that position in the double pivot. United will need whoever plays next to Matic to operate from deep and connect the play from back to front with the Serb dropping in between the center backs to help them build from the back.
But despite van de Beek’s positive showing against the Toffees, for the profile of fixture, Fred still does seem like the obvious option. Naturally fit and coming off an impressive Copa America outing, the Brazilian’s energy and ability to recover are tailor made to contain a dynamic Leeds midfield.Embed from Getty Images
The biggest concern with Fred is his occasional over eagerness to win the ball back. That sporadic lack of discipline could leave Matic exposed at times, especially on the breaks. But judging by how Bielsa set up his side to try and contain rather than go toe to toe with United at Elland Road last season, United probably should expect to control proceedings.
Ultimately, the question is: Will Solskjær go with his trusted personnel or will he gamble on van de Beek who will be looking to prove himself all season long? In a way, how else is he supposed to win over the manager and earn more minutes than to get a chance on the big stage, right?
All in all — team selection aside — United will be desperate to avoid a false start similar to last season. This summer was still far from perfect in terms of pre-season. It was disjointed and very youth focused. With that, it feels as though Solskjær will go with his fittest rather than best on paper line up. That’s why McTominay and Pogba are not really taken into consideration.
The Scottsman only played around 20 minutes on Saturday. Pogba looked rather rusty in his second half 45 minutes and only spent a fraction of those playing centrally before moving out wide. So, if United’s No. 6 was to get the nod from the start, it may very well be further forward rather than in the alongside Matic.
And now, let’s address the elephant in the room, shall we? Bruno Fernandes remains the only player without a mention. And there is a simple reason for that – he is the first name on the team sheet. The Portuguese talisman played an hour against Everton and looked right back to his ever-emphatic self. Bruno looks fresh, rested, and certainly up for it. His rocket of a free kick followed by a signature knee-slide celebration in front of a near packed Old Trafford showed everything fans needed to know. He’s here and he’s ready.
Naturally, we will know more on Friday when Solskjær takes to the pre-match press conference hot seat for the first time. But from the data available, it feels as though Matic is a no brainer, and it is just a matter of who partners him. Overall, my midfield prediction for who will start against Leeds United on Saturday is a pairing of Matic and Fred to start behind Bruno Fernandes.