Picking the United team is going to be tricky this season, not just because of the competition for places, but because of the need for rotation.
Central midfield in particular presents a difficult choice. We have two veterans in Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes who can’t play every game, three apprentices in Anderson, Tom Cleverley and Nick Powell who are eager for game time, new arrival in Shinji Kagawa who can play centrally if needed and Darren Fletcher looking to make a comeback.
And then there’s Michael Carrick, who Sir Alex Ferguson has marked to play the most crucial role in the engine room this season. Fitness permitting, he should play more games in midfield than anyone on the team.
For Anfield, our first choice pairing of Scholes and Carrick may not be available. Both have played two games in five days and will come into the Liverpool game with only three days rest.
With Kagawa sitting on the bench against Wigan and Ferdinand rested for Galatasaray, I suspect that Sir Alex has been thinking ahead to Liverpool. Anyone who played the last two games will be under the eye of the backroom staff, whose analysis may well determine their readiness for three games in eight days.
The man most likely to be rested is Paul Scholes, who has generally been playing only one game a week since his comeback. After starting the last two games he may need a few more days before he’s ready. However, Sir Alex took him off in both games, the 71st and 79th minute respectively, so he may be hoping that allows him to play another 60 or 70 minutes this Sunday.
But I think it’s more likely we’ll see Scholes on the bench and he will only be asked to come on for the last 20 or so minutes. He had two memorable sub appearances last season, playing a crucial role in our 3-2 comeback win against Manchester City in the FA Cup and the remarkable 3-3 draw at Chelsea after going down 3-0 – he is the greatest asset to have in reserve.
As Sir Alex said this summer when asked about our midfield:
“I think Carrick is the key to it. He did really well in second half of last season and I think he’s going to be the key man. They will all play a part but, for me, Carrick is the key player.”
Michael Carrick covers a lot of ground in a match and he played the full 90 in the last two games, so it’s questionable if he’ll be asked to play again so soon. However, this is exactly the sort of game where you want Carrick’s calm and experience, it will be very tempting to start him.
If he is asked to play at Anfield, Carrick can recuperate all week as our midweek game is in the League Cup, freshly renamed the Capital One Cup, where we’re likely to change most of the team to give younger players a start. Hopefully some of those who have been shining for the U21s like Joshua King, Federico Macheda or Ryan Tunnicliffe can get a game and the veterans like Carrick can take a break.
It’s very likely that Giggs will be asked to partner Carrick. This was Sir Alex’s primary response when Scholes needed rest at the end of last season, where Giggs started all the big games that Scholes didn’t start himself. Giggs was in fine form against Wigan. While ostensibly deployed on the left wing, he was constantly cutting inside and playing more as a central midfielder, where he seems best suited these days.
If Carrick doesn’t start against Liverpool, then Cleverley will likely partner Giggs. While Cleverley’s experience pales next to Scholes and Carrick, his industry and tenacity are well suited to the tie. So far this season it’s been Cleverley who’s been called on when Scholes or Carrick don’t start and Cleverley has shown he’s not intimidated by big games.
Because of the magnitude of this match I’d be very surprised to see Anderson or Kagawa come into central midfield at this point. With only one start for the Brazilian, and Kagawa needed in Rooney’s role behind the main striker, I can’t see Sir Alex starting either centrally.
Powell has almost no chance of making his first start on Sunday, it’s no place for your first away game. While Fletcher is just as unlikely to start, he may be asked to come on late to hold a one goal lead, like he was in midweek.
It should be a fantastic game regardless of who is chosen in central midfield. With Liverpool’s recent difficulties on the field, it’s a great chance to send out a strong team and put them on the back foot. With only two points from their first four games, Liverpool’s worst start in over 100 years, they will be desperate for a win. Fireworks at the ready.