Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tactical decisions backfired badly last night as the Red Devils only managed to scrape a draw against Club Brugge.
Solskjaer decided to rest key players ahead of Sunday’s Premier League match against Watford and recalled Jesse Lingard, Andreas Pereira, Juan Mata and Diogo Dalot, resting Bruno Fernandes, Fred, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James.
The manager also persisted with the back three he has favoured in recent matches, with Luke Shaw at centre back and Brandon Williams at wing back.
The resting of players continued on into the game, when the Norwegian opted to haul off man-of-the-match Anthony Martial after 67 minutes with the game poised at 1-1 and United needing goals.
On the surface of it, it is possible to see the logic of freshening up the side against a weaker side when playing three games in seven days.
However, it was a short-sighted blunder for a number of reasons.
First, arguably the Europa League should be the Red Devils’ priority this season as winning it would guarantee the side Champions League football. Whilst finishing in the top four of the Premier League would also do so, that is not in United’s hands, whereas the Europa League is.
There are twelve matches left to play in the Premier League and United have to leapfrog three sides – Chelsea, Spurs and Sheffield United, to finish fourth. They also have to outperform both Wolves and Everton who are both just two points behind, with Arsenal and even Burnley not out of the picture either.
Whilst Manchester City’s UEFA ban may allow fifth place to also qualify for next season’s top competition, that is under appeal and cannot be guaranteed.
On the other hand, there are only eight more games in the Europa League – or five more ties including the current one. There are some tricky potential adversaries waiting in the wings, such as Porto, Inter, Sevilla, Arsenal and Wolves, but there are also the likes of, Celtic, Shakhtar, Getafe, Lask, Basel and Rangers left in the competition.
It is a competition that the Red Devils should win.
So to replace Fernandes and Fred with Lingard and Pereira in such a crucial game last night therefore reeked of complacency and a total lack of appreciation of how poor the latter two have become.
As reported here after the game, fans were appalled at the decision and the pair’s contribution and with just cause; Lingard and Pereira are simply not good enough, even against inferior teams such as Bruges.
What is worse in Pereira’s case is that he is being played out of position in central midfield, a role he clearly does not suit. If the manager insists on resting Fred in particular, it is puzzling as to why he does not try James Garner or Dylan Levitt, who are natural in that position and who have both acquitted themselves well in previous Europa League outings.
You also have to question the manager’s choice in which players to rotate. Brandon Williams has been exceptional in his breakthrough season but has clearly looked jaded in recent games. It is not the time to overplay a young 19-year-old, nor to play him in that less familiar and more energy-sapping wing back role.
Another issue about resting so many players in this game was the logic behind it. The players should be relatively fresh, having played only once after a two-week winter break. And yet they were rested for a European away game, which are never straightforward, to ensure they are fresh for a Premier League home tie three days later against 19th place Watford. Next Thursday the Reds play the same opposition in the home leg three days before a tough trip to Goodison to play Everton, who are in 9th and just 2 points behind United.
Had United fielded a strong side and won this game, Solskjaer could have afforded to rest players in the second leg. Now, he will once again have to field a strong side – or risk underestimating Bruges again and gambling on these poor, poor squad players again. For that reason, it was a very strange decision to remove striker Anthony Martial – who was on fire – after 67 minutes. By all means bring on a second striker in Ighalo at that point, but if he had been brought on alongside Martial rather than replace him, the Reds could and should have gone on to win the game and Martial could have been given the night off at Old Trafford in a week’s time.
Of course, hindsight is a wonderful thing, but the manager’s decisions around this game were poor and illogical and could cost United dearly as the season unfolds.