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.
Know more about Sport360 Application