Manchester United wrap up the group stage of their Europa League campaign on Thursday afternoon, as the Red Devils host AZ Alkmaar at Old Trafford.
United have already clinched their spot in the round of 32, but they still have to fight for first place in Group L as they are only one point ahead of their Dutch counterparts.
It might not mean much, but clinching the top spot in the group means likely avoiding a third place Champions League team in the knockout stages as a result.
Either way, the Red Devils will be advancing out of the group, which means now’s a good time to analyze the team's chance of potentially winning the tournament. The Europa League may not be everyone’s priority at the moment, but hoisting the trophy at the end of the season would clinch Champions League qualification for next year, which is crucial.
With United’s inconsistency this campaign, trying to figure out their odds is tougher than it seems.
It’s not the continent’s premier cup competition, of course, but there are plenty of quality sides in the Europa League this campaign. The likes of Sevilla, Sporting Lisbon, Porto, Roma and even Arsenal have plenty of experience on the European stage, and they will all have expectations of making a deep run in the tournament.
That doesn’t even factor the 3rd place sides coming in from the Champions League, as Ajax, Benfica, and Inter Milan will all look to rebound from UCL disappointment by doing well in the Europa League.
However, oddly enough, these will be the teams United will want to face. The Red Devils are at their best when they play on the counter attack against good teams, and their record versus the top six teams in England proves just that. They’ve beaten Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur just this past week, while already defeating Chelsea twice this year, and they’ve also tied league leaders Liverpool as well.
United are simply better when they have less of the ball. Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has built a team with plenty of pace that’s uber direct, flying forward on the break whenever the chance arises.
When these marquee European clubs come to Old Trafford, they’ll be surprised when they control possession. It won’t be a problem for them early on, as teams at this level usually like to have the ball, but that feeling will quickly change when the Red Devils start flying into space left in behind.
Their youthful exuberance could also be key, as this current United teams seems too young to worry about going on the road and playing in tough environments. They haven’t gotten used to the pressure just yet, so it won’t affect them as much as other sides.
It’s easy to imagine the Red Devils snatching a road goal or two against anyone on the continent, which will be priceless in helping them survive and advance in the Europa League.
However, it’s a much different story when United come up against weaker opposition.
When the impetus is put on them to create, they tend to fall apart. The Red Devils have consistently failed to break down teams who sit back and park the bus this season, and it’s a real reason to worry. Still one of the biggest clubs on the planet, Manchester United are usually the favorites going into matchups. They have plenty of the ball, sure, but they never really know what to do with it.
There was a stretch earlier on in the year when the team couldn’t even manage to register a shot on target in some games.
We’ve seen examples of this in the Europa League already, as they were held scoreless versus AZ Alkmaar, and needed a penalty to beat Partizan Belgrade away from home.
There will be teams left in the tournament that will fancy their chances against United. FC Basel, Frankfurt, and PSV Eindhoven have caused famous upsets in the past, and they could always pull off another surprise in this year's tournament.
Room for improvement
Thankfully for United, they’ll have plenty of time to prepare.
The draw to decide the round of 32 will be on December 16th, but the first legs of the knockout stage won’t be played until February 20th of next year. That gives the Red Devils over two months to fix their issues before the pressure is really put on them to perform.
That means a chance of improving the squad in the upcoming January transfer window. The current United roster has plenty of problems that need to be dealt with, and reinforcements in the winter could resolve those worries.
Don’t expect the Red Devils to spend much, but there are a number of players available who could reasonably sign with the club for the right price. Dream acquisitions like Jadon Sancho and Erling Braut Haland will likely be saved for the summer, but the likes of Mario Mandzukic, Leandro Paredes, and Merih Demiral could make an instant impact at Old Trafford.
It also gives the club more time to decide if Solskjaer is really the man to lead them into the future. Many were expecting him to be fired after a dreadful start to the season, but wins over Spurs and Manchester City have saved his job for the time being.
He has to make the most of this momentum, as United still have a chance of putting together a successful campaign. However, if they start to drop points once again, the board might have no other choice than to bring in a replacement.
Fans may not like it, but the Europa League has become a priority for Manchester United. Finishing in the top four of the Premier League is an increasingly daunting task, so winning the continental cup competition is the Red Devils best chance of qualifying for next season's Champions League tournament.
Jose Mourinho was able to do it a few years ago, so the pressure will be his replacement Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to do the same.