The new Premier League season is just 10 days away and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men will be looking to have a much better start to the season then in the 2020/21 campaign. Having previously reached the Europa League semi-finals, Manchester United were granted an extra week off to get players back to full fitness; this proved ineffective as United lost their opening day tie to Crystal Palace 3-1.
United then went onto salvage a post final whistle win thanks to a controversial VAR call before an ice-cold Bruno Fernandes penalty. This was a remarkable result due to the circumstances but in reality, was a poor display with Leandro Trossard hitting the post on many occasions.
The poor form didn’t end there, as United were humiliated at home to Tottenham 6-1 with Anthony Martial getting sent off further dampening the belief early in the season.
United went into that season with a lack of fitness for one, but many exterior issues with players that put Solskjaer in a near impossible situation to start the season with. Paul Pogba was struggling with Covid, Harry Maguire had disruption with the law in Mykonos, Aaron Wan Bissaka missed the start of Pre-Season due to quarantining issues, and interiorly the United board failed to get Solskjaer any of his original first choice transfer targets leaving the team not much stronger than the ending of the previous season.
Therefore, for the start of the 21/22 season, Solskjaer will be hoping the team starts far better and can put them in a better position in the league early on.
Currently, United have played two of the four originally scheduled pre-season games. Their 3rd game against Preston was cancelled due to a Covid outbreak in the United camp. This was then cleared the next day but it leaves Solskjaer’s men with one less game preparation time before playing Leeds United on the 14th August.
United’s last pre-season game will be on the 7th August against Everton in which Solskjaer will hope to be able to field more of his desired starting eleven against Leeds than possible in the previous pre-season games. However, due to the Euros, many international players are only just returning or some haven’t even met up with the first team squad in their training camp in Scotland yet. Furthermore, new signing Raphael Varane had Visa issues and has to quarantine so will have even less preparation time before potentially playing Leeds on the opening day.
From the likely first team players, only Wan Bissaka, Nemanja Matic and Mason Greenwood will have had a full pre-season but even Wan Bissaka is a doubt with an injury picked up on the training camp. Matic could be a player Solskjaer looks to utilise due to the experience and training he has had over the international players just returning to training. Solskjaer should have a decent group of players to pick from for the opening day but its finding the right players and formation to combat Leeds’s ultra-fit style.
Team and Formation
Solskjaer ended the season using a front 3 of Marcus Rashford/Paul Pogba, Edison Cavani and Greenwood, but with the introduction of summer signing Jadon Sancho to the team it’ll likely shake some things up. However, Rashford is going ahead with his shoulder injury surgery meaning he’ll miss two months of the season. On the other hand, Anthony Martial has just returned from injury and with previous experience of playing on the left wing Solskjaer may look to put him back there with Sancho on the right.
Martial could be an impactful player as he brings variety to the other wingers when he plays and will be looking to get back in Solskjaer’s good books so will be keen to start well. Leeds and Biesla are renowned for their fitness and with them likely to have had far more players in pre-season, Solskjaer should look to combat this by playing the fittest players of the right standard available.
Granted, he could use his best players but as seen last season with Pogba, if they are not physically able to keep up, they become a liability and with Leeds ruthlessness they wouldn’t let United off. Therefore, players like Mctominay and Fred who may not be the best technically but are always physically useful could be utilised well here as Mctominay arguably produced his best performance in a United shirt prior against Leeds and the duo could handle the high levels of fitness and athleticism provided from Biesla’s men.
Defensively, I feel Solskjaer will look to use the same back four but if possible, bring in Varane in place of Victor Lindelöf. But due to Varane’s quarantining he might not be fit enough leaving Solskjaer no choice but to use Lindelöf. At left fullback, Solskjaer may have a slight dilemma due to Alex Telles’s recent injury and Luke Shaw recovering from broken ribs but it’s likely Shaw will be back in time for the Leeds game and thus Solskjaer can pick Shaw.
Then finally, the big dilemma of the goalkeeping position. The Manchester United fanbase is incredibly divided over this as some prefer Dean Henderson whereas others want Solskjaer to remain loyal to David De Gea. However, this tricky decision could be made for him as Henderson could be forced out due to fitness issues after his bout with Covid.
As a result, I feel Solskjaer should stick to the 4231 against Leeds with Mctominay and Fred as the pivot. This I feel although not likely to be popular amongst many would provide United with the right fitness and expertise to counter Leeds’s abilities. Mctominay’s driving ball carrying ability could help transition the ball and Fred’s dynamic energy stopping any counter attacks.
Since Leeds’s promotion to the Premier League, they’ve played quick expansive football always looking to put as many men forward as possible. However, this has its drawbacks as it can leave them vulnerable to a counter attack which United could exploit with the explosive forwards available in the team like Dan James, Martial, Greenwood and Sancho. Furthermore, Leeds are also vulnerable on set pieces so United with their new set piece coach could look to attack Leeds at as many set pieces as possible.
As with such an energy and fitness dictated game, I feel the crucial battle is in the midfield and therefore whoever Solskjaer picks in midfield will define how this game goes because if they get overrun then United could be in for a poor start again but if they can control the tempo and build their way into the game then United with all their quality could be too much for Leeds and could start their Premier League campaign off victorious.