Three months ago the Manchester United line-up could easily be foretold, such was their predictability towards the tail end of last season.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer returned from lockdown with a huge gap to close in order to finish in the top four, and he did just that with a well-structured and organised side.
Part of the brilliance was that every player knew his role, with partnerships able to flourish as a best XI clearly identified itself: De Gea; Wan-Bissaka, Lindelof, Maguire, Shaw; Matic, Pogba, Fernandes; Greenwood, Rashford, Martial.
Solskjaer fielded that line-up for five league games in succession but it wasn’t long before the players started to look burned out.
United were over reliant on Bruno Fernandes to the extent that he was running on empty by the time the Europa League mini-tournament came around, with no viable alternative to come in and afford him a rest, while in defence an injury to Luke Shaw exposed United’s lack of defensive depth, with Brandon Williams struggling to adequately deputise.
Solskjaer’s decision to stay faithful to a small group of players ultimately reaped rewards as United secured a passage back into the Champions League, but the Norwegian knew more depth was required if his team was to stay competitive this season.
In their two European matches thus far United have utilised two very different tactical set-ups, which were carefully selected with their specific opponents in mind. While it is something which they did at times last season, it is now an option which is much more viable after the business United did in the summer.
United’s failed pursuit of Jadon Sancho has been well-documented but it should be acknowledged that a right winger wasn’t prominent in either of the formations they have used in the Champions League so far this season. While it seemed like signing the Borussia Dortmund winger was essential rather than optional to their success, Solskjaer has instead changed formations to ensure a lack of a proven right winger is not currently a major issue.
Donny van de Beek’s long-awaited start in midfield also emphasised the incredible depth United now have, even if their starting line-ups are largely the same as they were last season.
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United are unbeaten since the international break after wins over Newcastle, PSG and RB Leipzig, and a draw against Chelsea somewhere in between. Next up is a home game against Arsenal, with United going into the match full of confidence after their crushing win over the Bundesliga leaders.
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The improvement has instead come from strengthening United’s back-up options. Rather than bringing on Andreas Pereira and Odion Ighalo, United could call on Fernandes and Marcus Rashford against Leipzig. Admittedly Fernandes and Rashford are regular starters, but against Chelsea at the weekend United brought on Paul Pogba, Edinson Cavani and Mason Greenwood.
It was Rashford and Fernandes who both came on to change the game with 20 minutes to go at Old Trafford as United’s strength in depth was once again emphasised against last season’s beaten Champions League semi-finalists.