They constantly operate in the spotlight, but Manchester United’s manager, players and hierarchy will have felt the heat this summer after one of their most disappointing seasons in the Premier League era.
A turgid sixth-placed finish damaged what had threatened to be a transformative transition from Jose Mourinho to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. But after the initial three-month honeymoon period it was clear there was trouble in paradise with players’ fitness and attitudes in question.
A big summer loomed for Solskajer as relationships needed fixing or ending. Judging by pristine performances and results in pre-season – United won all six of their games and looked sharp – they head into 2019/20 having healed wounds.
Even if transfer deadline day passed amid a backdrop of uproar among fans – at least the Twitteratti variety – United have addressed their shaky defence, with Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka providing instant upgrades at centre and right-back. Even if this means they now possess 13 defenders – three fewer than the total number of players in the Leeds squad that faced United in a pre-season game in Perth on July 17.
Solskjaer seems happy with the attitude and make-up of his squad, but just how will they line up in their opener at Old Trafford on Sunday against Europa League champions and another side who’ll be chasing a top-four place this season, Chelsea, and beyond?
We take a look at how a new-look United may approach the new season from a formation and tactics standpoint.
OPTION A | 4-2-3-1 DE GEA; WAN-BISSAKA, LINDELOF, MAGUIRE, SHAW; MCTOMINAY, POGBA; JAMES, LINGARD, MARTIAL; RASHFORD
United are clearly going to be far fitter this season with Solskjaer a fan of the high press favoured by Liverpool, Manchester City and Barcelona. From the evidence of pre-season it has been successfully implemented, with an energetic and hard-working United front six buying into their manager’s new methods.
Aside from his poor technique, close control and cumbersome movement, old fashioned target man Romelu Lukaku was a dreadful fit for this type of football.
But Daniel James is perfect. The Welsh lad is fast and a big threat going forward, though, in pre-season United fans will have also noticed a player who is focused and fastidious defensively too.
And while a player who only broke out season last term in the Championship may seem ill-suited to start for one of the Premier League’s biggest teams, the 21-year-old former Swansea wideman is someone who will grow into the campaign.
In Solskjaer’s favoured 4-2-3-1 set-up, a front four combined of James, Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial is a frightening prospect for any defence – particularly if the quartet can provide the same fluidity displayed in pre-season.
United have struggled badly on the right side of their attack. James has slotted in seamlessly this summer and Mason Greenwood has also caught the eye out there too.
If Lingard, Greenwood, Angel Gomes or Tahith Chong come into the line-up, they are all similar players so little changes. Even if the more static Juan Mata comes into the reckoning, his deployment as the No10 in pre-season does little to alter the structure of how Solskjaer will set his team up.
For all the hard work put in and heights hit by their attack over the last six weeks, you’d be hard pressed to find a more impressive United performer this summer than Scott McTominay. A United future looked far away when he was brought in by Jose Mourinho three seasons ago, but the Scot has steadily grown in stature – compiling 23 and 22 appearances respectively in the last two campaigns.
Now, it is clear his athleticism, energy and work ethic are traits that have been noticed by Solskjaer. The 22-year-old could be the perfect foil for Paul Pogba in the midfield two.
OPTION B| 4-3-3 DE GEA; WAN-BISSAKA, LINDELOF, MAGUIRE, SHAW; MCTOMINAY, MATIC, POGBA; LINGARD, RASHFORD, MARTIAL
The 4-3-3 could mostly be deployed in the Europa League, although expect Solskjaer to also utilise it away from home against hosts more likely to play expansive games.
The key to Solskjaer’s way of playing is speed, energy and free-flowing movement. This was evident during his time in charge last season…well, certainly in the early days of his interim reign anyway.
And it’s been a feature of pre-season, the manager entering the new campaign with the added bonus of having had the whole summer to work with the players, fully implement his own ideas and create a new identity.
United have looked fit, sharp and incisive. The high-press has been organised with the team working tirelessly as a cohesive unit.
James and Greenwood entered the fray and excited, however, Solskjaer will realistically begin the season with more established stars. But unlike previous regimes, Lingard and Martial will not likely earn starting roles based on reputation or squad stature, but rather through the desire and determination on display.
No two players arguably have more to prove. Fans are still waiting for Martial to fulfil his potential as he approaches his fifth season, while many question Lingard’s validity as a United player, especially after he reportedly received a dressing down following his summer excursions away from the club.
Both were impressive upon returning. Lingard was said to have topped the charts in almost all the fitness tests while after a poor performance against Perth Glory, Martial improved.
With Lukaku gone, Martial should feel he has more of a role. Whether that’s on his favoured left wing or dovetailing with Rashford in the central striker role, he has a huge part to play. And maybe that feeling of worth and trust from Solskjaer will finally coax him out of his cocoon of comfort.
The Norwegian has navigated his way through the transfer market by using heart, hard work and a sense of feeling like Old Trafford is home as his moral compass. Moves were mooted for Paulo Dybala and Christian Eriksen but neither had their hearts set on Manchester and so pursuits were dropped.
Given a string of superstar signings have failed, Solskjaer only wants players who want to be at the club – and the trio of arrivals highlight that; home-grown, hungry and with high ceilings.
It is a refreshing new attitude the whole squad seem to have embraced.
OPTION C| 4-2-3-1 DE GEA; WAN-BISSAKA, LINDELOF, MAGUIRE, SHAW; MATIC, POGBA; GREENWOOD, MATA, RASHFORD; MARTIAL
The back five – barring injury, rotation or poor form – is likely to remain the same all season. It’s ahead of them where the options will overlap for Solskjaer.
In the second 4-2-3-1 option, we’re giving exciting youngster Greenwood a go in the attacking three, of which Martial is the spearhead.
Hopes are high for the young academy starlet. Part of the reasoning for not aggressively pursuing a replacement for Lukaku is that Greenwood’s rapid ascension has been hallmarked by a poise well beyond his age.
He is young and raw, but Solskjaer also feels the 17-year=old is ready for a significant role this season. After 30 goals in 29 games at various age grades last season, Greenwood performed gloriously on the pre-season tour – he was joint top scorer behind Rashford with two goals.
One of them was a calm, thunderous winner against Inter while he also stepped up to nervelessly convert in the penalty shootout victory over the other Milan side, AC.
He should be overawed but nothing seems to faze him, and that is a valuable commodity.
Elsewhere, in the formation there is a place for Mata who impressed in pre-season and featured in his favoured, and most effective, No10 role. United have an embarrassment of wide attacking riches.
The Spaniard is a valuable squad player and experienced head who can help nurture the young players. His playing time won’t be plentiful but hopefully when we do see him, the veteran won’t be wastefully deployed out wide.
Behind them, another age issue rears its head – this time in a more troublesome way – with Nemanja Matic. Fans will rightly be concerned over the Serb stalwart’s form heading into the new season after a summer in which he looked ponderous and pedestrian.
He’s a wonderful professional and his leadership qualities in a team lacking leaders remain invaluable, but his engine – in an area lacking attention this summer – is not running as smoothly as it once was.
With Paul Pogba providing the thrust, Matic will be relied on to cut off opposition attacks, but the overriding belief is that he will be phased out by McTominay.
Paul Pogba is fit to start Manchester United’s Premier League opener against Chelsea.
The midfielder missed the final pre-season game against AC Milan due to a back spasm, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has confirmed he is fit for Sunday.
Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James could make their debuts, while 17-year-old Mason Greenwood is set to be named in the squad. Eric Bailly and Tim Fosu-Mensah are both injured, while Alexis Sanchez may not be involved after picking up a hamstring issue towards the end of the Copa America.
Chelsea boss Frank Lampard will make a late decision on N’Golo Kante before the game at Old Trafford.
France midfielder Kante hopes to return following a knee injury, while forward Willian and defender Antonio Rudiger (both knee) also face fitness tests but are unlikely to feature.
United States winger Christian Pulisic could make his Blues debut following his £58million move from Borussia Dortmund, but England duo Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi (both Achilles) will be unavailable.
Man Utd provisional squad: De Gea, Romero, Dalot, Wan-Bissaka, Young, Jones, Maguire, Lindelof, Rojo, Smalling, Tuanzebe, Shaw, Darmian, Chong, Garner, Gomes, James, Fred, Lingard, Matic, Mata, McTominay, Pereira, Pogba, Greenwood, Lukaku, Martial, Rashford
Chelsea provisional squad: Arrizabalaga, Caballero, Azpilicueta, Zappacosta, Rudiger, Tomori, Christensen, Zouma, Alonso, Palmieri, Jorginho, Kante, Barkley, Kovacic, Mount, Kenedy, Pedro, Willian, Pulisic, Giroud, Abraham, Batshuayi.
Manchester United fans head into the 2019/20 season in buoyant mood. Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka have been signed to plug a leaky defence.
The duo, alongside Luke Shaw and Victor Lindelof, as well as David De Gea, now all of a sudden look ship shape as opposed to a shipwreck last term.
Daniel James also provides a speedy asset up top, building into Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s blueprint to set his side up as a fluent, rapid attack that presses their opponents high up the pitch, which bodes well. Something that will also have pleased the boss in the build-up to the new campaign.
Pre-season has been positive – United won all six of their games (five victories against Perth Glory, Leeds United, Inter Milan, Tottenham and Kristiansund, and one draw, albeit they did overcome AC Milan on penalties in their final clash). And they head into their Premier League opener on Sunday at home to Chelsea in good form.
In the latest of our articles on the United players, we take a look at just how well the forwards performed over the summer.
JESSE LINGARD 7
One of, if not the most, reviled figures at the club – admonished for his bubbly and boyish behaviour, with his accusers claiming he cares more about his Instagram following than his impression on this United team.
Pre-season didn’t begin brightly either as he was believed to have received a dressing down from Solskjaer upon his return for an infamous video he filmed of a friend joking around while on holiday.
But for all the hate he attracts, Lingard is said to have responded by putting in a series of outstanding performances in training and been one of the most impressive performers among the squad this summer. The England international finished either top, or close to it, in many of the individual tasks.
Unlike his personal life, Lingard went about his business quietly as he impressed with his energy and insight on the pitch too.
Lingard’s tagline for his clothing line is ‘Be Yourself’, so he’s clearly never going to change as a person. The only thing that should concern United fans is how telling his contribution will be in 2019/20.
JUAN MATA 6
Like Smalling and Jones who have recently signed new contracts, eyebrows were raised when the diminutive Spaniard put pen to paper on a new deal. Again, the animosity towards the popular playmaker seems strange as he’s always contributed in five-and-a-half years since signing from Chelsea.
Maybe fans are simply venting and frustrated by the fact his arrival has coincided with the club’s demise, yet that’s hardly the fault of a player who has contributed 45 goals in 218 appearances.
His lack of speed and fragile build are popular misgivings to hang around his neck, yet neither are traits that have ever been associated with his game. Good professionals have been in short supply at United in recent years, and Mata is a positive figure to have around a young group.
Also performed well during the summer.
ANGEL GOMES 8
Like Tuanzebe, the 18-year-old is another youngster who’s really seemed to take a leap in the last 12 months. Has previously shown flashes of skill and promise, but this summer the London-born teenager turned that potential into performances – the highlight a stunning bit of individual skill and deadly finish to score a late winner against Spurs in Shanghai.
Having made his United debut on the final day of the 2016/17 season – he was the youngest player since Duncan Edwards to make his first team debut – Gomes has not had many more chances to shine.
But he played 145 minutes in pre-season and looked sharp, Solskjaer will certainly be thinking of thrusting him into his first team plans. Aside from his goal against Spurs he shone whenever he took to the field. He was on it a mere eight minutes against Milan and yet twisted Italian defenders inside out and also rocketed in a confident penalty during the shootout.
DANIEL JAMES 8
Much like Wan-Bissaka, has been one of the standout stars of United’s pre-season. His raw pace, energy and work-rate are exactly the traits Solskjaer craves from his new-look team, and the young Welshman has all three in abundance.
Meanwhile, his unpredictability is sure to twist Premier League full-backs inside out, while at just 21, James has huge potential for development.
Isn’t the finished product by any means and his decision making and end product need honing, but he’s moved to the right club to further his learning, and Red Devils fans are rightly excited.
TAHITH CHONG 7
Had an underwhelming first outing against Perth but was then excellent against Leeds and Inter Milan – against whom he attracted the attention of the hatchet men.
Earned a penalty against United’s rivals from across the Pennines and was absolutely unplayable against Inter; Milan Skriniar – one of the world’s best defenders – could simply not live with the wiry 19-year-old. The Dutch U21 international could do with hitting the gym, but is another youngster deservedly hoping he can force his way into his manager’s plans over the course of the season.
MASON GREENWOOD 7
Green by name, but certainly not green by nature. Are 17-year-olds supposed to look this accomplished so young? No, they’re not. And while United fans gushing over his pre-season performances need to temper their expectation, Greenwood certainly seems to have the talent and temperament to be the latest young United success story.
With Romelu Lukaku gone and no replacement signed, that tells you how much confidence Solskjaer has in the teenager’s ability. Another who confidently stepped up to score in the shootout win over Milan, Greenwood bagged a thumping winner against inter and also scored a predatory strike against Leeds.
ANTHONY MARTIAL 7
The languid Frenchman, perhaps unsurprisingly, had a slow start to pre-season, but grew into it. He scored a penalty in the 4-0 thrashing of Leeds, though endured a relatively quiet and frustrating game, but he was better after that, linking up well with Pereria for the opening goal against Spurs.
Like Rashford, will surely be buoyed by his prospects this season, with the manager favouring the duo’s fast-paced and tricky skillsets instead of the battering ram target man Lukaku.
Heads into the new season though with the same question mark hanging over him – can he finally make his mark and make this his team? At just 23, he has the potential to be the player – along with Rashford – that United can be built around for years to come. He just needs to want it and perform week in, week out. The stage is yours Anthony.
MARCUS RASHFORD 8
A huge season beckons for the Wyhenshawe wonderboy who really needs to step up to the next level. A precocious talent who’s developed admirably since his stunning debut against Midtjylland in the Europa League three years ago, but it’s now time for Rashford to make a quantum leap because questions persist about how good he can actually become.
Some criticism is harsh – he is after all still only 21 and has more senior goals at this stage of his career than Alan Shearer and Andy Cole at the same time.
But musings about just how high his ceiling is are also fair. He has craved United’s premier striker role and a lucrative new £200,000 per week contract – plus Solskjaer’s favouring of him over Lukaku – suggests he will fully get his chance to be the star this season.
It is one he needs to grab. Has performed in pre-season – three goals and genuinely ferocious performances – that he is ready.