Manchester United wouldn’t have wished 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 kicking the campaign off on Sunday, August 7 and the final weekend of Premier League action before the World Cup there are 14 weeks which contain 16 Premier League games, six Europa League fixtures and one Carabao Cup tie.
It’s going to be a demanding and draining schedule, but Europe’s second-tier competition at least allows Erik ten Hag to tinker and rest some key players.
United will find out who they will face in the group stages when the draw is made on August 26, but whoever comprises the four teams they should have enough to navigate a path through even with a weakened side.
That will mean players are kept fresh ahead of the World Cup, which will have a knock-on effect in terms of their condition when they return from Qatar, and also allow Ten Hag to prioritise those 16 top-flight games. Tottenham – back in the Champions League under Antonio Conte – and Chelsea will have no such luxuries.
Who will be rested will depend on how Ten Hag’s squad is shaping up once the transfer window closes, but it would be a surprise if Cristiano Ronaldo features in any of the group games. This looks 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 does pursue Antony as his attacking reinforcement then the Brazilian is more likely to add balance, as a left-footed right-winger. It might mean Anthony Martial or Marcus Rashford playing centrally, although United would be open to letting Martial leave and the Frenchman might be keen to push through an exit to keep his World Cup hopes alive.
Rashford won’t be leaving this summer and he’s been keen to embrace the fresh start that Ten Hag’s arrival is giving him, posting training videos on Instagram that show he’s getting a headstart before returning to pre-season next Monday. The 24-year-old has suffered a prolonged dip in form that left him questioning his future at Old Trafford, but United expect their new coach to bring improvement out of players and Rashford must be top of the list.
There’s been an absence of elite-level coaching at Carrington for several years and Rashford has evidently suffered from it. His game has fallen apart during that time and his confidence has drained away.
It’s understandable if Rashford has been needing a reset, physically and emotionally. He’s already racked up 303 games for United and in an unsuccessful side he’s sometimes had to carry a heavy burden, especially as a local player and academy graduate.