There was nothing predictable about Manchester United’s match against Newcastle yesterday. After 85 minutes, it was still 1-1 and nobody expected the game to end 4-1. Nobody expected goals from Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Nobody expected Bruno Fernandes to miss a penalty.
But the biggest surprise of the night was the teamsheet. When manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer announced Harry Maguire had ‘taken a knock’ before being sent off for England on Wednesday night, everyone thought he was saving face while preparing to rest him. That is what most fans thought was the right thing to do, it’s what legendary club centre-back Rio Ferdinand thought would be done. But it was not in Solskjaer’s mind.
Everyone thought Rashford would start alongside Mason Greenwood up front, but Greenwood was not even found on the bench. ‘Mason wasn’t fit to play, so we had to leave him out. We hope he will recover quickly’, Solskjaer said after the game: curious. Wasn’t fit, why? Is he injured? Sick? It all seemed a bit mysterious.
Most people believed that Donny van de Beek’s fine performances so far in a red shirt would guarantee him his first Premier League start, but they did not. Fred was chosen ahead of the Dutchman. And the ineffectual Scott McTominay was preferred as the holding midfielder to normal first choice, Nemanja Matic.
Then there was the selection of Dan James, who many thought would be loaned out or sold this summer. Not Manchester United standard, perhaps not even Premier League standard, many said.
And as if all that wasn’t enough, Solskjaer restored Victor Lindelof to the side, whose partnership with Maguire had come in for so much criticism before the Swede was replaced by Eric Bailly against Spurs.
It was such a strange teamsheet that fans wondered what was going on. Was Solskjaer resting players for the trip to Paris? That would make little sense, as United don’t need to win that game, but desperately needed to win this one. Had there been some sort of dressing room revolt that had caused Solskjaer to drop the likes of Pogba and Greenwood and perhaps Jesse Lingard, who he would normally have had on the bench?
The teamsheet was such a surprise that you almost wondered if Solskjaer was asking to lose, asking to be sacked.
Or so it seemed. But Solskjaer was vindicated. His team won 4-1.
The fact is that this was the team into which Ole put his faith to keep his job.
At first, it looked like a huge gamble, but it was perhaps more of a huge ‘f—k you’ to the doubters. There is only one conclusion: Solskjaer was saying ‘look, I know there’s a lot of problems, but this is my squad, the squad I’ve built, I have to keep my faith in them. These 11 will fight for me harder than any other 11 players I can put on that pitch, and that’s what I need now.’
In other words, that teamsheet was picked based on who Solskjaer believes has his back. Which in turn perhaps tells us who Solskjaer doubts has his back – Matic, Bailly, Pogba, Lingard and possibly even Greenwood.
This summer’s transfer window has been one of the strangest in living memory. So cast your mind back to less stressful days and test your knowledge of past United arrivals and departures in our quiz below.