It is mid-July but Manchester United are about to enter the crucial part of their season. They are still in with a chance of winning two competitions and can claim a Champions League spot for next season via two means; the next four weeks are important for United’s current development.
Since football has returned from its shutdown, United have been the best team in the Premier League. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side have won four of their Premier League games and drawn the other two, against Southampton and Tottenham Hotspur; they are unbeaten in the league since late January and are on an 18-match undefeated run in all competitions.
That run and the work that Solskjaer has put in, forming a starting XI that combines guile with creativity, has led United to this point, but it is the next few weeks that will define their season and, to an extent, next season too.
What are the priorities?
United travel to Crystal Palace this evening, their first of three final league games which also include meetings with West Ham United and Leicester City. That match against Leicester could be a shoot-out for the last place in the top-four. United spurned a chance of going above the east midlands side when they drew with Southampton on Monday, meaning that Solskjaer’s team are currently level on points with Brendan Rodgers’ charges in fifth.
Perhaps, United have a better chance of qualifying for next season’s Champions League via the Europa League. When the competition resumes next month, United will pass LASK Linz in the round-of-16, as they already have a 5-0 advantage from the first-leg, and face either Istanbul Basaksehir or Copenhagen in the quarter-finals. Solskjaer’s team are the best left in the competition, of that there is no doubt, but a possible meeting with Wolverhampton Wanderers in the semi-finals would not be an easy proposition.
On balance, United probably have an equal chance of qualifying for the Champions League from both of those routes. They also have an FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea to come on Sunday at an empty Wembley. A triumph in this competition will certainly be a welcome achievement for Solskjaer, his first trophy at the club as manager, but it must be remembered that United won the FA Cup in 2016 and still Louis Van Gaal was sacked hours later - perhaps, a clue as to where this cup ranks.
Which competition should Solskjaer prioritise? Well, there is no doubt that the final three Premier League games will be at the forefront of his mind. Considering the lacklustre way in which United started the season, a top-four finish would cap off a steady season of development which has seen the emergence of a number of key elements to this promising United team. Solskjaer should see the Europa League as a second chance for Champions League qualification, if they don’t manage it in the league.
How can Solskjaer prioritise?
Potentially, United could play nine more games before their season ends, that is in addition to what has been a taxing Project Restart featuring six games in 24 days. The United manager has settled on a starting XI recently that has been effective with the trio of Mason Greenwood, Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford behind striker Anthony Martial; it works especially against teams who sit deeper and are more compact.
Martial’s up-turn in form has coincided with United scoring 17 goals in six games. The Frenchman has scored six since the restart, including a hat-trick against Sheffield United, taking his overall tally for the season to 21, already his best for the club. Behind him in attack, there are not too many options apart from Dan James coming in for Greenwood, whose game time should be carefully managed.
United’s defence is also equally stable, in one sense at least. The back four of Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Harry Maguire, Victor Lindelof and Luke Shaw along with goalkeeper David De Gea have been ever-present in recent weeks but there are still some doubts regarding their composure at key moments. Solskjaer usually makes changes for the FA Cup but a game at Wembley may lead him to only swapping De Gea for Sergio Romero, who has played every game in the competition this season, and Shaw, who picked up an ankle injury against Southampton.
It is in central midfield that Solskjaer has the greatest options. Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic have been deployed recently but Scott McTominay was developing nicely before the shutdown and will surely be given another run in the team. Likewise Fred, who seemingly had a new lease of life during the winter months. Add in Juan Mata, Andreas Pereira and Jesse Lingard, and United are able to swap and change if needed.
Yet, the way in which these games fall, United may be able to stick to the settled starting XI for the majority of them, provided injuries do not occur. The run of Europa League games in Germany are a few weeks after the end of the Premier League with a potential FA Cup final nestled in between.
Given United’s form, the work-rate of these young, hungry players and that they desperately want Champions League football next season, there is no reason why they cannot put their all into each of their remaining games and finish this season on a high.