Manchester United cannot afford to risk returning players versus Chelsea
Photo by Simon Stacpoole of Offside via GettyImages

Manchester United are less than a week away from their biggest game of the season so far, as the Red Devils will travel to London next Monday to take on rivals Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

Only six points separate the two sides in the Premier League standings, with the Blues currently sat in 4th and United in 8th after this past weekend’s fixtures. They’re fighting for the final Champions League qualification spot, and a good result on the night would go a long way for either team.

United knows this, which is why they’re putting a great emphasis on getting players back from injury in time for the contest. Reports have started to emerge that both Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay could actually feature versus Chelsea, with the latter involved in the Red Devils warm weather camp in Spain.

However, rushing back either of those two players too soon could end up costing United much more than three points. 

Same old story

It wouldn’t be the first time Pogba was risked by manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer this season. Earlier on in the campaign, the Frenchman was dealing with a minor ankle injury. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world, but he was forced to miss a few games.

Pogba made his comeback in a Carabao Cup tie versus  Rochdale AFC, which was a smart decision by Solskjaer. Pogba would get to make a brief cameo in a game of lesser importance before getting subbed off and saving himself for future fixtures.

That would not be what happened. Instead of putting the game to bed early, United were dragged into a scrap. Since the game was close, Solskjaer did not feel comfortable taking off Pogba, who was forced to play full 90. He would re-aggravate his ankle injury, and fans have only seen him for a few games since.

Making Pogba play versus Chelsea could have the same effect.

Many have started to doubt him, but Pogba is still United’s best player. Simply unstoppable on his day, the club needs to make his health priority number one. The former World Cup winner can drag the Red Devils into the top four, but he needs to be fit to play to do just that.

Even if the plan is to move on from Pogba in the summer, the club still benefits from getting the most out of him for the remainder of this season. His value is at an all time low right now, and United need the situation to improve if they want to make some money back on his transfer. 

Short term gain, long term loss

McTominay is still only 23 years old, which some might forget considering how much he’s done at United already.

Graduating from the youth academy during former boss Jose Mourinho’s second season at the club, few understood why the Scotsman was getting so many minutes all of a sudden. However, as time went on, McTominay proved himself to supporters. 

He’s now a crucial part of the team, and was Solskjaer’s first choice defensive midfielder for the start of this campaign. A knee injury has ruled out McTominay for the  past two months, and initial estimations projected that he would be out for even longer.

The midfielder has recovered well though, so there’s now hope he can feature against the Blues. However, he’s still got a lot left to do, as McTominay isn’t even practising with the rest of his teammates yet. There’s only a few days left until the crucial contest versus Chelsea, so he will need to be rushed back in order to play.

That risk isn’t one worth taking on a player who is dealing with his first major injury. McTominay should be one of United’s main midfielders for years to come, so his future should not be endangered in any way. He’ll say he's ready to go no matter what, but the coaching staff must save him from himself.

Capable replacements

United might not have the best depth in the league, but they do have other viable options that they can turn to against Chelsea. 

Fred has really improved in recent times, and was even named the club’s player of the month this past January. Making the most of his chance in the team after the aforementioned injuries to Pogba and McTominay, the Brazilian has become a mainstay in the United midfield.

Having adapted to life in the Premier League, Fred has started to show why the Red Devils paid so much for him over a year ago. Strong defensively despite his lack of real height, he’s helped support the backline time and time against with his work off the ball. He’s not too shabby going forward either, able to maintain possession with clever passing.

Then there’s Nemanja Matic, who’s had a minor resurgence of sorts in the United team. Written off at the start of the year, many were surprised to see him not be sold before the end of the summer transfer window. When he began to publicly criticize Solskjaer in the media, that was apparently the final straw, with the Serbian set to leave as soon as the option was available.

However, since he was still there, Matic was turned to during the injury crisis at Old Trafford. Even though he was rusty to start, the midfielder began to find his feet once again, showing glimpses of his old self at times. He’s back to being a key part of the squad, and was greatly missed due to suspension when the Red Devils drew Wolves 0-0.

Even new signing Bruno Fernandes can help out. Admittedly better going forward, he can still get the job done in a deeper role. Dropping back to pick up the ball allows him more space to operate in, and he’s still able to mark opposing attackers as well when forced to.

United might be tempted to go all out in order to beat Chelsea next Monday, but it’s just not worth risking the long-term health of their two best midfielders.