It now seems only a matter of time until four more seats in the stands of sparse Premier League stadiums are occupied by more substitutes. EFL clubs have received permission to make five substitutions in league games until the end of the season, and the spate of muscular injuries is likely to prompt a U-turn from the Premier League clubs that voted against retaining the five-subs rule.
The wear and tear has already prompted David Moyes to change his mind after he recommended West Ham vote to reduce substitutes back down to three from five. It is not a coincidence the ‘big six’ coaches have made the loudest noise about player welfare though Jurgen Klopp was not challenged on why Trent Alexander Arnold, forced off with a calf injury at City 11 days ago, was removed in the 81st minute of their thrashing of Atalanta five days earlier. Liverpool were 5-0 up after 54 minutes.
Manchester United have the luxury of listing a 23-man squad on Champions League matchdays – the same number of players international coaches name in tournament squads. On domestic duty, managers still have five fewer players and it is a relatable issue that the Premier League has not increased the 18-man squads when Bundesliga clubs were permitted 20-man squads pre-pandemic and Italy were ahead of the curve with 23.
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United entered the international break by winning what was arguably their most important match of the season at Everton on Saturday.
The under-pressure Reds came from behind to beat the Toffees thanks to Bruno Fernandes’ double and Edinson Cavani’s first goal for United.
United have a two-week break with many of their stars heading off on international duty – we’ll be keeping tabs on how they all perform, and on preparations for their next Premier League match against West Brom.
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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has 31 players to monitor and disappointing a handful rather than nearly half would spare him of some disgruntled conversations. Brandon Williams, as an example, signed a new contract on August 4, started in the Europa League semi-final 12 days later and received a squad number upgrade for the new season. The 20-year-old has not had a kick in the Premier League and made the bench only once.
The decision rests with the manager, ultimately, and United decided they needed a left-footed left-back to compete with Luke Shaw. Alex Telles has only played 67 minutes but has recovered from coronavirus and was unused in Brazil’s World Cup qualifying win over Uruguay. The Tuesday night scheduling gives him ample time to replace the injured Shaw for an 8pm kick-off against West Brom on Saturday.
Shaw sustained another hamstring strain at Everton 12 days ago and is only one of five United players who have started all seven league matches. Shaw was enjoying his best domestic display of the campaign up until he slumped to the turf in front of Goodison Park’s Bullens Stand in the 67th minute and was replaced by Axel Tuanzebe.
Tuanzebe started at left-back against Arsenal last season and could not have imagined he would end up there again. The switch encouraged Everton and their two standout chances to equalise came from crosses delivered by the usually erratic right winger Alex Iwobi, evidently stimulated by facing an auxiliary left-back.
Had Abdoulaye Doucoure connected cleanly in the 95th minute it would have reflected horrendously on Solskjaer, for Williams and Telles were both fit and both at Goodison but neither were on the bench. They were the only outfield players cut from the provisional squad that assembled at The Lowry Hotel.
Solskjaer fumed at Shaw’s injury yet this is a player whose United debut was delayed by a month in 2014 due to a hamstring strain and he missed 96 days of last season with a hamstring problem. Shaw was odds-on to pull up in a lunchtime kick-off after a Wednesday night slog in Istanbul.
United were without Mason Greenwood, so Solskjaer offset his absence with the unused winger Daniel James, Tuanzebe has played across the back four, Edinson Cavani is the substitute striker, Dean Henderson is David de Gea’s deputy and then there were three midfielders: Nemanja Matic, Paul Pogba and Donny van de Beek.
The best players do not always make for the best team and Bruno Fernandes, Fred and Scott McTominay have established themselves as United’s most dependable midfield troika. Solskjaer has accommodated the six specialist midfielders in nine of the 10 Premier League and Champions League fixtures this term and Matic only missed the season opener against Crystal Palace as he was quarantining.
Logically, a seven-man bench would consist of a ‘keeper, a centre-back, a full-back, two midfielders and two forwards. Solskjaer is patently reluctant to cut one of the midfield sextet and has already bristled at questions about Van de Beek’s wait for a Premier League start. Pogba is always topical and if Matic was discarded attention would be drawn to the three-year contract he signed in early July, a month before he turned 32.
Van de Beek and Pogba have been game-changers off the bench and their presence is more daunting than that of Matic’s. Tuanzebe was a commendable holding midfielder towards the end of the 2016-17 season and Solskjaer is not averse to jamming that square peg into a round hole.
No wonder United voted in favour of five subs.
Possible United squad vs West Brom: De Gea, Henderson, Wan-Bissaka, Maguire, Lindelof, Tuanzebe, Telles, Williams, McTominay, Fred, Pogba, Van de Beek, Fernandes, Mata, Greenwood, Rashford, Martial, Cavani