Manchester United wouldn’t have wanted to be in the Europa League this season, but it has at least clarified their thinking in a campaign that begins with a step into the unknown.
Between United’s kick-off on Sunday 7 August and the final weekend of Premier League action before the World Cup, there are 14 weeks with 16 Premier League games, six Europa League games and one Carabao Cup tie.
It will be a demanding and exhausting program, but the second-level competition in Europe will at least allow Erik ten Hag to tinker and let some key players rest.
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United will find out who they will face in the group stage when the draw takes place on August 26, but whoever the four teams may be, they should have enough to make their way through, even with a weakened side.
That means players will stay fresh for the World Cup, which will have a knock-on effect on their fitness when they return from Qatar, and also allow Ten Hag to prioritize those 16 top-level matches. Tottenham – back in the Champions League under Antonio Conte – and Chelsea will have no such luxuries.
Who will be equipped depends on how Ten Hag’s roster forms once the transfer window closes, but it would be a surprise if Cristiano Ronaldo is seen in any of the group matches. This seems like an ideal opportunity to keep him fit for domestic action, rather than forcing him into a Thursday-Sunday schedule.
The identity of Ronaldo’s backup remains unclear, but if Ten Hag pursues Antony as his offensive backup, the Brazilian is more likely to add balance as a left-footed right winger. It could mean Anthony Martial or Marcus Rashford playing center stage, although United would be open to letting Martial leave and the Frenchman would be happy to push through an exit to keep his World Cup hopes alive.
Rashford won’t leave this summer and is eager to embrace the fresh start that Ten Hag’s arrival will give him, posting training videos on Instagram showing him getting a head start before returning to pre-season next Monday. The 24-year-old has had a prolonged dip in form that has left him questioning his future at Old Trafford, but United expect their new coach to bring improvements out of players and Rashford should be at the top of the list.
There has been no elite coaching at Carrington for a number of years and Rashford has clearly suffered from that. His game has fallen apart in that time and his confidence has drained away.
It’s understandable if Rashford needs a reset, physically and emotionally. He has already played 303 games for United and in a failed squad he sometimes had to carry a heavy burden, especially as a local player and academy graduate.
But the goodwill has worn off at times and it feels like this is the last chance to secure his future at United. His contract expires next summer, although United have the option of another year, and if he wants to stay with the club for the long term, his performance must improve.
Rashford prefers that left-wing role in United’s front three, but he’s not alone in making that request and Jadon Sancho will likely be ahead of him in the pecking order. Both Rashford and Sancho will also be desperate to find themselves back in the England squad in time for the World Cup.
Rashford had a stint as a striker under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and initially thrived in that position, but has gradually reverted to a wide striker and his ideal position is on the left, grabbing the ball and floating the infield on his right foot.
But Ten Hag has shown versatility when it comes to strikers at his disposal. He has used Klaas-Jan Huntelaar as a penalty box predator, Dusan Tadic as a false nine and Sebastien Haller as a target. He doesn’t have a specific formula for his attacker in mind, even though he wants them to have some similarities.
That trio score different kinds of goals, but Ten Hag does demand that they be involved in the build-up game, an area where we saw Ronaldo improve in the final weeks of last season. That could also play into Rashford’s strengths.
Movement is a big part of his game and while he dislikes playing with his back to goal as a striker, competing with centre-backs, he can have success if he drops out of the penalty area, connects with the wide United players, with the midfielders and find space in that way. That can also make him run into the area, which is a good way to use his speed and his fierce shot.
If United don’t sign a striker this summer, it will only head into 2023, when they will almost certainly need a top scorer to replace Ronaldo. They are unlikely to sign two strikers then, so if Rashford can prove his versatility by filling that position, he could prove invaluable to Ten Hag after all.