Manchester United are scheduled to open their Europa League campaign on Thursday against Astana.
The match at Old Trafford should be quite an intriguing one. How seriously will Ole Gunnar Solskjaer take the competition? Or rather, how seriously will he be able to take it, given United’s injury depleted squad? The Kazakh side are nowhere near the level of United, but a win is essential here and should not be taken for granted. The mental effect of failing to (or struggling to) beat Astana would have huge ramifications on both the group but Manchester United’s young squad.
So they have to win, and ideally they have to win well. With that in mind we’ve come up with three possible XI’s for Solskjaer to use as they make their Europa League bow. What are they and who’s in them? Read on and find out!
Make no mistakes, Manchester United need to beat Astana. The Red Devils have been in perilously poor form to start the season. The blistering 4-0 win over Chelsea on the opening day now looks like a cruel cosmic joke, a brutal false dawn for what has otherwise been kind of basically the same frustrating nonsense as last season.
Sure there’s been progress, no doubt Maguire and Wan-Bissaka have transformed the defence and will continue to do so further – but the midfield is a joke and the attack is still lacking that one final thread to knit it all together. United squeezed by Leicester on Saturday and, with West Ham coming up on Sunday, they know that picking up a head of steam is essential.
With that in mind, they cannot overlook the threat of Astana and need to snuff it out as soon as possible. Thus, we believe that Solskjaer should pick a very strong side. It should be the strongest side he can field allowing for injuries and the confirmed starting berths for Mason Greenwood, Axel Tuanzebe, Fred and Sergio Romero.
So the Argentine is in goal, and in defence we have the usual shut-down full-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Tuanzebe goes next to him. Harry Maguire is the defensive anchor and Ashley Young wears the captain’s armband. In midfield Fred starts next to Scott McTominay to provide stability and control, with Juan Mata as the 10 to aid them in that.
Jesse Lingard fills in for the injured Daniel James in left-wing whilst Mason Greenwood plays on the right. The teenager will start wide but power his way infield where he can use his lethal shooting skill to break Astana down. Then Marcus Rashford leads the line. A strong side to win the game early and then the likes of Rashford, Wan-Bissaka and Maguire can be rested ahead of the next league game.
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Of course, United could go the other way entirely. Rest as many first-teamers as possible in the hopes that United’s thin squad doesn’t get any thinner. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has a variety of youngsters at his disposal so why not use them? Obviously the four confirmed starters are in despite age, so Romero will be in goal.
The right side of defence will be young, with Tuanzebe playing just inside of Diogo Dalot at right-back. The Portuguese has understandably fallen behind Aaron Wan-Bissaka in the pecking order but he’s still a quality prospect and, of course, it was his shot which led to United’s dramatic winner in Paris last season so he will relish a chance to show his wares.
On the left of defence, we have Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo. They’re not good nor are they young, but they are still players and will probably play. Good for them. In midfield, we’ve again got Fred confirmed but with a switch to a 4-3-3, we could see him partnered by Scott McTominay, United’s best defensive midfielder, and James Garner. No, not that one. Garner is a promising youngster with great passing skill who would relish the chance to shine in a solid midfield.
In attack again we’re going for the youngsters again so it’s Angel Gomes playing left-wing (he’s a no. 10 really but playing with a free role could roam and probe for spaces) and Tahith Chong on the right. Chong’s supreme dribbling skill and crossing ability will make him a formidable wing-partner for Gomes as United’s wide men should be able to break down Astana’s defence with the ball. Then up-front is Mason Greenwood. The striker has been guaranteed a start and in this XI he leads the line looking to announce himself.
The most sensible selection solution is a bit of both: switch the formation to the United classic 4-4-1-1 and pick a mix of youth and back-up talent. Obviously Romero remains in goal: in fact, the entire defence is the same as in the previous side because that’s honestly not a bad back-line. They’re all sensible enough defensively (barring a Marcos Rojo special) and Dalot offers an attacking outlet on the right.
In midfield, you deploy Nemanja Matic to anchor things. The Serbian is terrible but he should at least be good enough to handle Astana. Next to him, Fred has the freedom to run things and either side of them are two genuine wingers. Andreas Pereira is a player who can’t do much but hit set-pieces so make him play a Beckham-esque role out wide, working hard and whipping the ball in, free-kick style. On the left Chong plays on his natural side and runs up the touchline in an orthodox wing role. Having him always wide to stretch defences out will be huge for United in terms of allowing them to play quickly.
In attack, you pair Jesse Lingard and Mason Greenwood. Lingard is a relentless worker whose movement off the ball and sharp finishing skills (well, outside of the Premier League anyway) make him useful. He would be a foil for Greenwood, making runs to drag defenders out of the young striker’s way and hopefully create chance after chance.