Football Features

Make or break for Man Utd? Predicting the Premier League’s scariest post-international break fixture list

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 13:30, 6 October 2021

Manchester United have lost three of their last six games across all competitions, which is really bad given the brutal run of fixtures the club has coming up.

Baffling defeats to Young Boys, Aston Villa as well as a home EFL Cup exit to West Ham really took the edge off all the hype generated by Cristiano Ronaldo’s debut brace against Newcastle (albeit the cracks that would form the current crisis were visible in that game). And worse, their only two wins in this period have come via desperate last-minute winners (and a stoppage-time penalty save).

United haven’t played well in what feels like forever, and ordinarily this would be a bad thing that could maybe be rectified by a gentle run of games coming up, especially with the international break allowing some players time to recuperate.

Once the break is over, however, the Red Devils will have to drive headfirst into the storm. United’s six fixtures leading to the next international break are absolutely brutal, and here we run the rule over them and the possible results. Witness!

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Leicester City vs Manchester United

16 October – King Power Stadium – Premier League

United return from the international break with a trip to the Midlands to play Leicester. The Foxes are currently languishing in mid-table off the back of some pretty miserable performances, having won just one of their last seven games — and that was an EFL Cup tie against Millwall.

Leicester’s struggles should in theory make them easy pickings for United, but it’s worth recalling that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men didn’t beat Brendan Rodgers’ side in any of their three meetings last season, drawing 2-2 at the King Power, getting dumped out of the FA Cup 3-1 and then losing at Old Trafford (with a reserve side) 1-2.

The Foxes are a powerful defensive outfit that roar forward on the counter-attack, which is exactly what United have been struggling with lately. And with Jamie Vardy in superb form (six goals to lead the Golden Boy race alongside Mohamed Salah) that becomes a real problem. This is a definite banana skin type of game. However, due to Leicester’s own woes as well as the return to fitness of Marcus Rashford MBE (the lightning in a bottle that should make this United attack click) the Red Devils should have the firepower to just blitz through.

Prediction: Leicester 1-2 Manchester United

Manchester United vs Atalanta

20 October – Old Trafford – Champions League

Man Utd have never played Atalanta, so there’s no bad history to worry about. Of course, what there is to worry about is Atalanta’s fast and fluid style of football under Gian Piero Gasperini. They are a pressing machine and flood on the break at rapid pace using width to pummel sides. They can be a nightmare to face and the potential for them tearing United to shreds, like Athletic Bilbao did a decade ago, is real.

However, much like Leeds United in the Premier League their attacking and wide style of play leaves them vulnerable to simple, fast and direct play through the heart of their team. So while they could easily devastate United, what could equally happen is that United simply cut through them like a hot knife through butter (like they did to RB Leipzig last season). And in a must-win Champions League game at Old Trafford, with Cristiano Ronaldo facing a team he’s scored against three times in six games, that’s likely to happen.

Prediction: Manchester United 4-2 Atalanta

Manchester United vs Liverpool

24 October – Old Trafford – Premier League

Much as the Atalanta game will lift everyone’s hope up for the Red Devils, the Liverpool fixture will bring everyone crashing down to earth with a great big bump. To put it simply: Liverpool are much, much, much better than Manchester United. As a team they play with more coherence, stability and structure.

Player-for-player United can compete, and may even be superior overall, but where Solskjaer relies on the individual genius of his players to carry him, Jurgen Klopp’s system of play actively makes all his players better. Good becomes great, great becomes brilliant, brilliant becomes world-class, and world-class becomes whatever plane of existence Mohamed Salah is operating on right now.

The only reason this won’t be an absolute pasting is, for some bizarre reason, Klopp seems to get spooked by Old Trafford. The German genius has just one victory there as Liverpool boss and it came during a hectic spell last season where fixture congestion forced United to play four games in eight days. The Reds were the fourth game in that run, and they just beat up an exhausted United.

And although this match also comes in the middle of a brutal run, United will have been afforded more rest. Liverpool will definitely score, Salah opened his account against United at Old Trafford in the FA Cup last season so good luck stopping him, but United should have enough to ensure they don’t lose as Klopp reverts to type at his ‘bogey’ ground.

Prediction: Manchester United 2-2 Liverpool

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Tottenham Hotspur vs Manchester United

30 October – Tottenham Hotspur Stadium – Premier League

If they played each other now, Man Utd would walk all over Spurs. However there’s three weeks to go until this game and Spurs’ run of fixtures leading up to hosting United is, bar a London derby with West Ham, positively serene.

Spurs will be in better physical shape, especially Harry Kane who should actually be match fit by then. Kane and Son Heung-min destroyed United last season, and while Nuno Espirito Santo doesn’t quite have the same mojo as Jose Mourinho, he also has form for knocking United off balance when they’re on a roll. He was the second manager to beat United during Solskjaer’s initial great run as caretaker boss.

United will head into this game full of confidence given their results, but they will also be starting to feel the burn mentally. It’s draining playing so many big games, and so, when some sloppy play (there’s always sloppy play) gives Spurs a chance that they take, likely through the excellence of Son, United will find it harder to rouse themselves for a comeback.

Prediction Spurs 3-2 Manchester United

Atalanta vs Manchester United

2 November – Stadio di Bergamo – Champions League

Remember all those things that applied to United facing Atalanta at Old Trafford? Well it’s the same again except this time without the roar of the crowd and with the fatigue of four hellacious games in their legs, United will not have the same drive in Bergamo. Atalanta, though, smarting from their Old Trafford loss, will unleash hell on the Red Devils and tear them apart, reversing the score from the first game.

Prediction Atalanta 4-2 Manchester United

Manchester United vs Manchester City

6 November – Old Trafford – Premier League

Manchester City are quite simply too good. They are much better than Manchester United and pretty much everyone not named Chelsea or Bayern Munich, really. Pep Guardiola’s men are playing stupendous football and have already been to Anfield and Stamford Bridge, and despite Thomas Tuchel’s war machine, and two Salah miracles, they’ve come away with four points.

Guardiola has made winning at Old Trafford something of a habit, too. He’s won there every single season he’s been at City (albeit in 2019/20 he lost in the league, but did win in the EFL Cup) and that isn’t going to change in 2021/22.

City have a relatively easy path towards the Manchester Derby, with only Brighton away having the potential to be as taxing as any of United’s games over the same period. Meanwhile United of course have to slog through all the above fixtures, a brutal gauntlet that will drain their players of mental and physical energy. Then at the end of all that they have to rouse themselves and play the best team in the world.

There’s just no way they’ll be able to lift themselves. Maybe they’ll start fast, because of the Old Trafford crowd, but it won’t take long for City to establish a strangehold on the midfield and thus over the entire match. Ronaldo loves to score against Guardiola teams and Rashford is dynamite in Manchester Derbies, but City simply won’t let them have the ball.

In the end, City will make it seven points out of a possible nine from their three hardest away trips in the season and United will suffer their third straight defeat. This will be the first time they’ve lost three in a row since April 2019, which was capped, amusingly enough, by a 0-2 home loss to Manchester City.

Prediction: Manchester United 0-2 Manchester City

So that’s that. Six games in one month, two wins, a draw and three defeats. Seven points out of a possible 18. That’s really not great and Solskjaer will be feeling the heat again. However he will be saved (just like he has been this time) by the arrival of the international break in early November. And when they return from that time out, they will have a comfortable match against Watford.

But don’t think it’ll be plain sailing for United after that because they then have to travel away to Villarreal who they only barely beat at Old Trafford, and that was with a David de Gea masterclass, and a last-second winner. A trip to El Madrigal will not be easy.

Then after that they’ve got the small matter of visiting Stamford Bridge where European champions Chelsea lie in wait. Finally they will host Arsenal, the one big club Solskjaer has never been able to crack (after he beat them in his first match, anyway).

Those games are all too far away to reasonably predict, but you can be sure that things will not calm down for United until December, when all they have to contend with is the freezing cold and the legendarily jam-packed English winter football calendar.

Ole’s at the wheel! But he’s got to drive that club through a brutal storm of fixtures. Can he make it out the other side? There’s only one way to find out and that’s to wait and see what happens.