It’s that time of the year again. The Premier League is back in business for what is expected to be one of the most memorable to date, and Manchester United start the 2017/18 campaign with the visit of West Ham United.
Slaven Bilic’s side can be dangerous on their day but the Reds will be looking to get off to a winning start for the third consecutive season, but who will start at Old Trafford on Sunday afternoon?
An experimental centre-back trio
GK – David de Gea: This one’s a no brainer, despite Sergio Romero’s imposing 2016/17 campaign in which he was José Mourinho’s cup goalkeeper and featured in 18 matches, keeping 12 clean sheets. Manchester United look to have fought off interest in de Gea’s services from Real Madrid for another summer, and will consequently keep the Spaniard as the first-choice shot-stopper.
RCB – Chris Smalling: You’d expect more centre-backs to be given opportunities by José Mourinho this season, with the Portuguese testing out a new 3-5-2 formation in some of the preparation fixtures and at the start of the UEFA Super Cup. The final spot in the centre of the defence looks like it’ll be contested between Smalling and Phil Jones, but it’s expected that the former will be preferred in the opener.
CB– Eric Bailly: Even though he missed the defeat to Real Madrid on Tuesday night thanks to a harsh extended European ban handed to him by UEFA, Eric Bailly is United’s best centre-back and should be featuring in most games this term. The Ivorian’s sheer pace and power make him a valuable asset at the back and it wouldn’t be surprising if he built on a terrific start to life in England last year this time around.
LCB – Victor Lindelöf: Daley Blind or Jones could very well replace Victor Lindelöf in the starting XI after the 23-year-old looked shaky in midweek and throughout pre-season, but it’d be wise to keep him playing. His ability to get the out of the defensive third so quickly could prove to be crucial for Mourinho’s counter-attacking style, and should be given a chance to shine in the Premier League.
The midfield should be jam-packed
RWB – Antonio Valencia (c): As Nemanja Matić gears up for an inevitable start in the anchor man role behind the midfield, Valencia will most likely be the man to take the captain’s armband off Michael Carrick. The experienced former right-winger was revitalised last season as part of the back line and was even described as the “best right-back in the world” by his new manager, so it seems set that he’ll be relied upon once again throughout 2017/18.
CDM – Nemanja Matić: Even with the £72m capture of big frontman Romelu Lukaku in mind, luring Nemanja Matić from champions Chelsea could be the Reds’ most important signing of the transfer window. Aged 29, he isn’t exactly a long-term replacement for Carrick, but does give the midfield a perfect balance which will now see Paul Pogba flourish in a freed-up role, where he can strut his stuff further up the pitch without having to worry about defensive responsibilities.
RCM – Ander Herrera: The 2016/17 Player of the Year will be looking to light up Old Trafford once again this season, and with Matić behind him we could see a bigger contribution towards goals than ever before, on top of his superb influence in the middle of the park. In what should be a congested midfield on Sunday afternoon, Herrera’s ball-winning ability could be a deciding factor as to whether United will kick-off the season with a winning start.
LCM – Paul Pogba: If he focuses more on his game rather than Twitter emojis, this promises to be colossal 10 months for Paul Pogba after a good first year back in England following a four-year stint at Juventus. The dynamic Frenchman was unfortunate to not have a higher 2016/17 return, considering he hit the woodwork an astonishing nine times in all competitions. But with best friend Romelu Lukaku now in the squad to link up with, a considerable improvement on the five goals and four assists he achieved in the top flight last season seems a certainty.
LWB – Matteo Darmian: With Luke Shaw still recovering from the ankle injury that’s kept him on the sidelines since April, Matteo Darmian appears to be Mourinho’s first-choice left-back heading into the competitive action. Blind can do a job on the left, but his speed is a major concern and hasn’t looked sharp in the build-up, so the Italy international looks like the best bet at this moment in time.
Plenty of attacking options
RS – Henrikh Mkhitaryan: Mkhitaryan has looked stunning throughout the pre-season campaign, providing three and netting three of his own in a new second striker role, and it’d be crazy to see him drop to the bench against West Ham. The Armenian attacker had an unconvincing start to life in England but has turned around his fortunes with a number of dazzling displays, and this term could be a massive one for him if he continues to be regularly played.
LS – Romelu Lukaku: All eyes will be on this man as he looks to fill the spacious boots of Zlatan Ibrahimović and he got off to a great start by scoring in on his official debut against the European champions on Tuesday. 24 goals for Everton last season was terrific but you wouldn’t put it past him to surpass that at the Red Devils, bearing in mind the hugely improved service, and he’ll be hoping to open his Premier League account against a side he’s scored seven against in his last eight.