United’s international coterie have seen staggered returns to Carrington and, having had so many in action again in the final week of the Copa America and the European Championship, there is still one final group that will only return tomorrow (Monday).
The loss of the friendly to Deepdale after United reported a small number of positive Covid-19 tests on Thursday – only for the first-team team to all negative tests a day later – will cost some players a chance to step up their physical form. Diogo Dalot and Donny van de Beek were due to make their first preseason starts and perhaps Bruno Fernandes and Scott McTominay were also involved.
United have just one pre-season friendly left, against Everton at Old Trafford on Saturday, and some key players will have less than two weeks of training before the start of the season.
The standards have risen so much in the Premier League that the idea of making it easier for you to enter a season is no longer applicable.
If it takes a total of points in the mid-90s to win the title, the first game of the season could be just as crucial as the 38th. A slow start could cripple a team’s chances of supporting a title challenge, especially in what could turn out to be a four-way title battle.
United’s opponents on the first weekend of the season are also relevant in this discussion. A date at Old Trafford with Leeds United when a large crowd returns for the first time since March 2020 will be an incredible opportunity, but visitors are sure to be inspired and they also offer arguably the most demanding 90 minutes and the most intense of the season.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer spoke on Wednesday that a meeting with Leeds is the most physical of the campaign and for United it comes at an inopportune time. Marcelo Bielsa’s side have had far less disruption in the pre-season than United.
So when Solskjaer picks his side on August 14, he’ll have to balance star quality and match fitness. Choosing a team where eight or nine of the players have only had two to two and a half weeks of training could be a recipe for disaster, given the rush required against Leeds.
It could lead to a side surprise or two and it could be relevant in midfield. Solskjaer wants to move to a single defensive midfielder for the majority of games this season, although it would not be surprising to see two in place against Leeds. Fred won’t be resuming training until next week and while McTominay returned two weeks ago he has missed two back-to-back friendlies so his fitness could be an issue.
So that could be an advantage for Nemanja Matic. The Serbian was back at Carrington on day one of the preseason and has appeared in all three friendlies so far. His physical form will be ahead of his rivals for this midfield role and against the energy and intensity Leeds will bring to Old Trafford, which could be crucial.
Fernandes will be a starter against Leeds, but Paul Pogba has just returned to Manchester. Donny van de Beek could also find his way, having returned to group training this week. But even if Solskjaer chooses to set up his midfielder, Matic’s pre-season work could give him a start on the opening day of the season.
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