Ole Gunnar Solskjaer dodged the question at yesterday’s press conference about whether he would rotate his Manchester United side for today’s trip to Fulham, but the question itself is a much more valid one than it was just a few months ago.
Solskjaer must decide whether to rest players today, against easier opposition on paper, ahead of Sunday’s FA Cup tie with Liverpool, or be safe rather than sorry in a Premier League fixture and do his rotating in that less important cup game.
In the post-lockdown end to last season, such a decision would have been a luxury for the manager. He could have rested and rotated, but the options on the bench simply did not fill him with confidence, so we saw pretty much the same eleven time and again. By the end of the season and that Europa League semi-final loss to Sevilla, they looked exhausted.
Fans were frustrated and angry at United’s lack of strength in depth and were further incensed over the summer when the club appeared not to support Solskjaer in the transfer market, in particular over the acquisition of Jadon Sancho and a centre-back such as Dayot Upamecano or Kalidou Koulibaly.
Yet somehow, as if by magic, you look at United’s second string now and they aren’t half bad. Some would argue they could hold their own against the first eleven.
Look at this alternative eleven to Sunday’s (presumably) first choice side. In Dean Henderson, we have one of the Premier League’s outstanding keepers of last season. Brandon Williams offers more offensively than Aaron Wan-Bissaka at right-back. Eric Bailly and Axel Tuanzebe, if injury free, are arguably the two most talented centre backs at the club. And whilst Luke Shaw is in excellent form right now, if Alex Telles were to find his FC Porto form for United, he would bring another level of attacking full-back play to the side.
Nemanja Matic may have slowed a little but is still arguably the best holding midfielder in the squad. Donny van de Beek is a world-class midfielder. Juan Mata is an underrated master who won player of the month award in September – one of only two besides Bruno Fernandes to win it this season.
Amad Diallo is the unknown quantity in the side but let us roll the dice on that one and throw him in and see what he can do.
That is quite some backup team.
In fact, if we were to include loaned out players, there is a third string side at United that looks more like the one Solskjaer had at his disposal last term – Romero, Dalot, Rojo, Jones, Garner, Pereira, James, Lingard, Chong, Ighalo and we’ll throw in Facu Pellistri as the wildcard of this side.
That third string is arguably as good as a lot of mid-to-lower table Premier League sides.
A lot has been made of Liverpool’s injury crisis this season but in reality, of their first choice eleven that won the Premier League so easily last time out, they are only missing Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez plus one of their backups, Joel Matip. The fact that they are putting midfielders in their centre back positions speaks to their own lack of strength in depth and even perhaps to the fact that they were incredibly lucky to avoid injuries last term.
Of course, this does not make United favourites to win the Premier League this season and even if they can finish ahead of Liverpool there are other teams – notably Manchester City but arguably also Chelsea, who have very strong, deep squads.
However, in terms of sheer talent, on paper at least, you could even argue that this 2020/21 Manchester United squad is the strongest that there has ever been.
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