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Off the pitch, Manchester United’s summer has been going very well, but on it pre-season has been a little chaotic and the cancellation of yesterday’s friendly against Preston North End was the latest blow.
United’s coterie of internationals have had staggered returns to Carrington and, having had so many still in action in the final week of the Copa America and European Championship, there’s still a final group who will only return tomorrow (Monday).
The loss of the friendly at Deepdale after United reported a small number of positive Covid-19 tests on Thursday — only for the first-team squad to all test negative a day later — will cost some players a chance to build up match fitness. Diogo Dalot and Donny van de Beek were due their first starts of pre-season and perhaps Bruno Fernandes and Scott McTominay would have been involved too.
Now United have just the one pre-season friendly remaining, against Everton at Old Trafford on Saturday, and some key players will have less than two weeks training before the season begins.
Standards have risen to such an extent in the Premier League that the idea of easing your way into a season is no longer applicable.
If it’s going to take a points tally in the mid-90s to win the title then the first game of the season could be just as crucial as the 38th. A slow start could be crippling to a team’s chances of sustaining a title challenge, especially in what could be shaping up as a four-way battle for the title.
United’s opponents on the first weekend of the season are relevant in this discussion as well. An Old Trafford date with Leeds United when a capacity crowd returns for the first time since March 2020 will be an incredible occasion, but the visitors won’t lack for inspiration and they also offer arguably the most demanding and intense 90 minutes of the season.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer touched on that on Wednesday, that a meeting with the Leeds is the most physical of the campaign and for United, it comes at an inopportune moment. Marcelo Bielsa’s side have had far less disruption in pre-season than United.
So when Solskjaer picks his side on August 14 he will have to balance star quality against match fitness. Picking a team where eight or nine of the players have had only two to two-and-a-half weeks of training could be a recipe for disaster, given the running required against Leeds.
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That might lead to a surprise or two in the side and that could be relevant in midfield. Solskjaer wants to switch to just one defensive midfielder for the majority of games this season, though it wouldn’t be a surprise to see two in place against Leeds. Fred will only return to training next week and while McTominay returned two weeks ago, he’s missed two successive friendlies, so his fitness could be an issue.
It could be advantage for Nemanja Matic as a result. The Serbian was back at Carrington on day one of pre-season and has featured in all three friendlies so far. His fitness will be ahead of his rivals for that midfield role and against the energy and intensity that Leeds will bring to Old Trafford, that could be crucial.
Fernandes will be a certain starter against Leeds, but Paul Pogba has only just returned to Manchester. Donny van de Beek could also force his way in, having made his return to group training this week. But however Solskjaer opts to set up his midfield, Matic’s work in pre-season could give him a start on the opening day of the season.
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