Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will have faced more difficult selection decisions in his time at Molde and Cardiff, but he can’t have faced many that will be more puzzling than picking the Manchester United team to face Crystal Palace this weekend.
His players are at varying levels of fitness having had pre-seasons that have lasted anywhere from a few days to nearly three weeks. There were only four players at Carrington when United returned on September 2 and seven players only made their first appearance on Monday.
Add in the fact some players have played for their countries, some have fitness in their legs still from the end of last season, some will have put more work than others in during pre-season and some (Paul Pogba) have been laid low by Covid-19 and it’s pretty clear that this doesn’t look like a squad primed to hit the ground running on Saturday.
Without wishing to give Crystal Palace any extra motivation, Solskjaer will be relieved United’s opener is both at home and against a side they should be beating, even if the Eagles did win at Old Trafford at the start of last season.
But the target for Saturday will be solely around getting three points. It’s getting the job done that counts for now, not how good you look doing it.
Solskjaer’s Friday press conference might shed some light on who is available and who isn’t to face Roy Hodgson’s side, but then the Norwegian isn’t always implacably honest when it comes to injury bulletins.
The stop-start nature of pre-season and the late arrivals should at least guarantee a start for Scott McTominay. The 23-year-old started in midfield against Aston Villa in United’s only pre-season friendly last weekend and as one of the fittest players in the squad he will be primed to go on Saturday.
McTominay’s energy and his ability to get up and down the pitch will be a bonus this weekend, helping to make up for a shortfall in those areas from some teammates who might be a little behind the Scot when it comes to fitness levels.
The academy graduate played 45 minutes at Villa Park, but he twice completed 90 minutes for Scotland in the Nations League and should be one of the few players ready to go come the first weekend of United’s season.
McTominay’s case for a start is strengthened by the fact Nemanja Matic and Fred only checked into Carrington earlier this week. They are unlikely to be ready to go this weekend.
The Scot’s natural fitness is no secret at United. He posted some stunning 5km times during lockdown and Luke Shaw labelled him “a joke” for his fitness.
Speaking to the Official Scotland Podcast before international duty, McTominay made it clear that even with just a two-week holiday this summer he was glad to be back with a ball at his feet.
“I’ve had a bit of time off with my friends and my family. I think it was two weeks after the Europa League semi-final,” he said.
“It is good to be back kicking a ball about. You miss it, whether it is two weeks or longer. You just can’t wait to get back with all of the boys again and obviously all the staff as well are brilliant.”
McTominay also explained that you don’t lose that match sharpness from the end of the season with just a two-week lay-off, which means he’s been topping up those levels with his two-and-a-half games so far this month.
His enthusiasm for the game also shines through and explains why he was ready to return after just a fortnight away.
“Football is football. You should just love what you are doing and you should just love your job. For me it is exactly that. I love playing football and whenever you are injured, or might not be in the team, you are just desperate to play,” he said.
“And for me that is the most important thing, to keep your head down and keep working hard.”
McTominay started just two of United’s final 11 games of last season, but he should be back in the team for the start of United’s season. The traits he can bring to the side will invaluable right now.