Monday marked a momentous day in Manchester United’s pre-season, with a full squad finally back in place at Carrington for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to work with.
Unfortunately for Solskjaer the arrival of the cavalry in the form of seven players checking in for the first time this summer came only six days before United’s Premier League season begins.
This week will be spent assessing fitness levels, getting players up to speed and working on shape as United seek to hit the ground running in the same manner as they did during Project Restart in June and July.
The difference then was that United were benefitting from a valuable period of rest and in Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford had two key players returning to the team. Now they have a condensed pre-season, with the condition of players unknown, and a daunting, draining season panning out in front of them.
Solskjaer will want to go with as strong a team as he can against Crystal Palace, but he knows not every player will be fit to feature. For those arriving at Carrington for the first time this week, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Nemanja Matic and Fred will surely find it too soon.
Pogba is already a doubt having only returned to training at the end of last week after a two-week period of self-isolating following a positive test for Covid-19. Mason Greenwood also had to train on his own before being reintegrated into the United ‘bubble’.
The uncertainties give Solskjaer much to think about this week, although he will be grateful the season gets up and running with what should be a relatively straightforward test, although Palace did win at Old Trafford at the start of last season.
After that game it’s straight into midweek fixtures for United, who will face Luton or Reading in the third round of the Carabao Cup next Tuesday, before a Saturday lunchtime trip to Brighton. Start as you mean to go on this season.
At some point before October, a month that looks like being a thorough examination of United given Premier League fixtures against Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal and the first two rounds of the Champions League group stage, Solskjaer will hope to have his side fully fit and firing, but for now he must tread with caution. While United swashbuckled on the resumption in June, they will need resilience to get through the first two weeks of the new season.
That might see Solskjaer consider a switch of system for the first couple of games. A back three against Palace at Old Trafford might look negative, but this is about getting three points and not taking too much out of the players in week one.
Midfield could be an issue if Pogba, Fred and Matic are all absent, but a back three could allow Scott McTominay to sit deep and Donny van de Beek to play further forward with Bruno Fernandes, with Anthony Martial and Rashford in attack.
Given United will dominate possession Daniel James can play the right wing-back role, with Luke Shaw slotting back in at left-sided centre-back and Brandon Williams the left wing-back. Such a formation would allow United to get by without forcing players into action too early. Options on the bench could allow Solskjaer to change the system if it fails to get the job done.
In June and July United were rampant in the Premier League, often putting games to bed by the hour mark. That’s unlikely to be the case in the first week of this season. The conditioning of this squad will be fascinating to see, given how tired they looked during the final weeks of last season and the limited pre-season they’ve had.
Solskjaer and the medical team at United have a major job on their hands this season to manage these players through a gruelling campaign. For now it’s about getting the job done rather than looking your best, so this is the side Solskjaer could pick against Palace this weekend.