It had to happen didn’t it? Everything was going so well. Then, in arguably their biggest match of the season against Paris St Germain, Manchester United lost two key players to injury in the first half. But, we said, at least it couldn’t get any worse than that, could it? Yes, it could. It could get twice as bad.
Against Liverpool, again, arguably United’s biggest match of the season, they lost not two, but three players to injury in the first half, with Marcus Rashford playing the role of the walking wounded for 90 minutes, in clear distress, completing the unlucky quartet. In my fifty years of watching Manchester United, I have never seen the like of it.
Add to this the loss of Nemanja Matic during training a day earlier, Paul Pogba also missing the return Champions League leg in Paris through suspension and Anthony Martial yet to return from his injury, the next two weeks could be Solskjaer’s toughest challenge yet, with games coming thick and fast. And you have to ask yourself, what kind of side can he possibly field to maintain United’s momentum in their push for the top four?
The good news is that there are two potential aces up Olé’s sleeve. The first of these is Fred. This hugely talented box-to-box midfielder must by now be chomping at the bit to impress for United, having started only 7 games since his £50 million signing from Shakhtar Donetsk in the Summer, and only one under Solskjaer – the FA Cup Third Round tie against Reading.
Having promised all his squad a chance to impress when he first assumed command, and having kept that promise to every other player, it is hard to understand why Solskjaer hasn’t used Fred more so far. Whilst it is true that the Brazilian hardly set the world alight in those first seven games, it must be remembered that 6 of them took place during a confusing “lost dressing room” standoff between the outgoing José Mourinho and the United squad. Hardly the ideal conditions to start your Premiership career. He was then only given 60 minutes to impress in the Reading game before being replaced by Marouane Fellaini.
At the start of February, Metro reported that Solskjaer had had a private meeting with Fred and promised the player he would get more chances. When fans learned of Matic’s injury, many believed that it was time for Solskjaer to make good on his promise and start Fred against Liverpool, but the Norwegian opted for “the next Darren Fletcher”, Scott McTominay instead. To add insult to injury, when Ander Herrera pulled up in the 21st minute, Solksjaer kept Fred on the bench yet again and gave the nod to another Brazilian, Andreas Pereira, whose previous performances had also been less than spectacular, to say the least.
Solskjaer’s public explanation for the non-selection of Fred is that he needs time to adapt to Premier League football. Speaking to the Manchester Evening News, Solskjaer said “We know there’s a very, very good player there with Fred, so hopefully he’ll adjust to the English game …There’s loads of players that have come in and found the first few months difficult…One of the best players I’ve played with that struggled the most was Diego Forlan. Veron is another, you know… it took a bit of time…But when they settled they performed. So I don’t think he needs to worry too much. He’ll get chances.” But Fred can only adapt if he plays, and surely, now, Solskjaer must give him a run of games and afford him the same opportunities to find his feet as he has with Pereira. If Fred can find anything like the form he showed at Shakhtar last season, he could make a huge impact on the rest of United’s campaign.
The other exciting prospect that could be unleashed on the first team at this stage is the precociously talented Mason Greenwood. In fact, due to the injuries to Martial and Lingard, rumour has it that Solskjaer was going to call up Greenwood for the FA Cup tie with Chelsea, but sadly the player picked up a knock himself and was ruled out of the game. If, as is believed, Greenwood’s period on the sidelines is to be less than two weeks, Wednesday’s trip to Selhurst might come too soon, but it may put him fit for Saturday’s home tie against Southampton.
The idea of the 17-year-old heading the line for Solskjaer’s United is mouth-watering. The prolific goal machine has impressed at every junior level and has been the undoubted star of the Under 23s this season, with a staggering 22 goals in 23 games in all competitions. Predominantly left-footed but more than useful with the right, Greenwood can play anywhere across United’s front line, potentially interchanging with Lukaku, Alexis and/or Martial, if fit, in the kind of fluid front three that Solskjaer favours. Moreover, unlike United’s other current young prodigies Tahith Chong and Angel Gomes, the muscular, 6ft tall Greenwood already looks the part physically and there is every reason to believe that he can hit the ground running at senior level.
Just a few weeks ago you might have been forgiven for thinking that losing Matic, Herrera, Mata, Lingard and Rashford all at the same time would be impossible to overcome. And maybe it will prove to be so. But if Solskjaer can unleash these secret weapons to good effect, and especially if he can also get Alexis firing, we may still find that the best is yet to come.