Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said the youth will get their chances this year – the Europa League is the perfect opportunity.
There’s a but, though, even if FC Astana aren’t the sternest of opposition.
As tricky as the Europa League is, United still have to try and win it whilst using the competition to rotate the squad and further blood the youth. Solskjaer can ill afford to dismiss it purely as a training exercise and it’s unlikely that he will, no matter how much we as fans want to see the next generation come through quickly.
Getting back into the Champion League is crucial in the long-term for many reasons if this squad is to develop as Solskjaer hopes and envisages. A large part of the current playing staff were part of the club’s 2016/17 Europa League campaign under Jose Mourinho when United went on to win the competition; they will all be acutely aware of how important experience was in getting over the line on numerous occasions during that run.
As was Mourinho’s style, he rarely turned to youth prospects that were on the fringes that season, especially when the chance to win the trophy was in sight and the league looked over from a top four perspective. Instead, it was an example of efficient rotation of established stars that were lacking game time domestically, mixed with undisputed regulars.
This time around, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer doesn’t quite have that luxury with the squad lighter on established names. Instead the United boss is tasked with blending youth in with the fit-and-ready experienced options. It would surely be naive, and possibly to the detriment of the youth’s confidence, to approach it any other way. The Europa League is full of surprises and the unknown so these youngsters will need to be backed by the older heads when possible throughout these group stages.
That ideology is made that little bit harder for this game against FC Astana. The trio of Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial and Luke Shaw are all still absent as well as long term casualty Eric Bailly. Options are further lightened with the unavailability of Daniel James. The Welshman picked up a knock against Leicester City and will definitely sit this one out meaning the United forward line is a lot more likely to be short on extended first team experience.
Thankfully, the Norwegian does have some players returning. Jesse Lingard is back in the fold after illness and Diogo Dalot is in the mix, too. It may be a bit too soon for Dalot to step straight into the starting eleven for this FC Astana tie but a place on the bench is possible.
One man who won’t be on the bench is Axel Tuanzebe. Solskjaer confirmed the centre-back’s inclusion during his press conference; a sign that he is sticking to a progression plan for many of these Academy graduates. The boss also confirmed that Mason Greenwood will start although he didn’t indicate where.
From looking at the youngsters that will be hoping for a start, there’s a good chance that three of them could form the support behind Marcus Rashford. Angel Gomes is well suited to the number ten spot that Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard have been sharing whilst Tahith Chong came on on the left wing for the last twenty minutes against Leicester City.
That would leave Greenwood to play from the right as he has done in all of his appearances so far this term – there looks to be a plan in place for the kids. The question is, will Solskjaer throw them all in at once? There’s an argument to be had about whether using all three from the start is a risk. It is conceivable that Mata or Lingard could start ahead of Gomes but the trio are well versed with each other’s games. It could just pay off.
That selection would require the midfield behind them to have a solid game and a good understanding. It looks like Fred is likely to be one of the pair sitting in the middle after he did well at the weekend. He did brilliantly in Paris there alongside Scott McTominay; if they could handle Paris Saint Germain then FC Astana should be manageable for the pair, even without a third body with them.
It’s likely that there will be more experience at the back, too. Victor Lindelof (fresh from signing a new deal) and Harry Maguire are candidates for a rest in this one considering their importance and busy international breaks. That means probable minutes for one of Phil Jones or Marcos Rojo. Rojo wasn’t in the squad for the last game so it would appear that Jones has the edge over Argentine counterpart. A distinct lack of standout leaders elsewhere in the prospective eleven also suggests that Ashley Young will continue as captain at left back.
Of course, there’s always the chance that the likes of Mata, Matic and Lingard all start ahead of some younger options but Solskjaer does have the opportunity to put out an exciting team against FC Astana at Old Trafford. No one likes the whole Thursday night thing but we may as well look to gain some positives from the experience, starting against these lads from Kazakhstan.
Score Prediction: Manchester United 2-0 FC Astana