When Manchester United’s players sat dejected on the pitch in Cologne in mid-August, their 2019/20 season finally over after 61 games, they wouldn’t have found much comfort in the thought that most of their Premier League rivals were already back in pre-season training, preparing for another campaign of breakneck intensity.
As United’s weary squad jetted away for their holidays, players at other Premier League clubs had already replenished their own stocks of Vitamin D and were back at training grounds up and down the country. It was a significant head start for those clubs who didn’t end the season with European football in Germany or Portugal.
To make matters worse the time when United returned to pre-season coincided with an international break as poorly timed as a Paul Scholes tackle.
So all in all this was a summer when United needed everything to go smoothly to give them the best chance of hitting the ground running against Crystal Palace on September 19.
Everything going smoothly didn’t include captain Harry Maguire ending up in court in Greece, Paul Pogba testing positive for Covid-19, Mason Greenwood apologising for making the front page of the papers twice in a week and Aaron Wan-Bissaka having to quarantine after returning from his holiday.
With a week to go Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has to somehow knit a team together to face Palace when some of his key players will only start training with the rest of the squad this week.
Some of those issues to affect United this summer are of course self-inflicted, but the limited time they’ve been given to prepare for the new season is basically punishing them (and Manchester City) for being successful in Europe last season. Given that the league has to play catch-up after a three-month suspension last year during the peak of the pandemic there may have been no alternative, but that doesn’t make it any fairer.
The side Solskjaer had to pick to face Aston Villa on Saturday in the club’s only pre-season friendly showed how badly his resources were stretched right now, with Marcus Rashford continuing to nurse an ankle injury as well.
Luke Shaw put the stilted nature of pre-season into context at the weekend, when he revealed the first day of training saw just four players report into Carrington. That was only two-and-a-half weeks before the start of the season.
It will be fascinating to see what sort of side Solskjaer can piece together for this weekend and the varying levels of fitness they will have.
Wan-Bissaka only returned to Carrington for the first time on Monday morning, giving him just a few days of training to be ready if he wants to feature against his old club.
Solskjaer has already named Pogba as a doubt after his positive test meant he missed the internationals with France and only returned to Carrington at the back end of last week.
With Pogba out Solskjaer will be desperate to start Bruno Fernandes, but his first session with the rest of the squad will only arrive today, having rushed back to the UK to beat new quarantine restrictions from Portugal. Fernandes did play twice for Portugal in the Nations League, which will help his fitness, but he remained in the country for the rest of last week for the birth of his second child.
The picture in United’s midfield is further complicated by the fact Nemanja Matic and Fred also only returned to Carrington on Monday, as did Juan Mata.
Further forward Greenwood had to initially train on his own as part of the induction back into the United bubble, after breaking Covid-19 guidelines while on England duty. He will be back within the group this week and could feature, especially if Rashford continues to be struggling with his ankle.
All in all there are plenty of headaches for Solskjaer to contend with this week and the team he is able to pick against Palace will be instructive. There will be limited time to work on tactical plans once the season is underway, with United’s schedule set to feature two games a week almost every week this season.
In contrast to United’s issues, some of their rivals have had it much easier this summer. Chelsea have had a longer period of training and have been aggressive in the transfer market. Liverpool have played four pre-season games, have been in training for a month and none of their front three went away on international duty.
The cards are stacked against United in the early weeks of the season. Perhaps they can use that as an extra source of motivation.