Manchester United needs a win this weekend, and that cannot be stressed enough. However, travelling to a Middlesbrough side that has endured an eventful week, nobody knows what could happen. Boro sacked manager Aitor Karanka on Thursday, a decision which did not make his mentor, Jose Mourinho, happy. As a result, this fixture could be the capitulation, or coming together, of Middlesbrough, in a fight to prevent relegation to the Championship.
United faces multiple problems heading into Sunday’s encounter, including a pressing need to get out of sixth position and into the top four. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba, and Ander Herrera, United’s three best players, miss out this weekend, as the former and latter are suspended and the Frenchman pulled his hamstring against FC Rostov on Thursday night. As a result, United’s key players will need to show up in the match.
Alvaro Negredo, Striker, Middlesbrough
Middlesbrough’s dismal goal tally of 19 in 27 matches equals that of the league’s two top scorers, Harry Kane and Romelu Lukaku. As a result, it is easy to state that Negredo has had a very poor season- however, it isn’t quite this simple in the case of the Spanish target man.
Scoring just six goals in 24 appearances is not good enough for a striker- however, looking at Negredo from another perspective, he has scored/assisted 10 of their 19 goals, which suggests that Middlesbrough simply doesn’t create enough chances for the Spaniard. Considering the circumstances, Negredo is an intelligent and tactical threat who could be the only source of goals for Middlesbrough on Sunday.
Negredo is blessed with impressive strength and physicality, and like many youth players of Spanish descent, the former Manchester City striker has great feet and solid playmaking ability. Furthermore, Chris Smalling can make any Premier League striker look like a world class threat, which means that United needs to ensure the 31-year-old does not have any space to turn into.
Fabio, Left-Back, Middlesbrough
Manchester United faces two former players at the heart of Middlesbrough’s defence. The first is goalkeeper Victor Valdes, and the second is Brazilian fullback Fabio, who failed to make the grade at United after showing much promise under Sir Alex Ferguson.
When on form, Fabio shows all the promise of a top fullback, especially moving forward- United fans hardly need a scouting report, considering he started in the 2011 Champions League Final for Manchester United. However, after leaving the club, he struggled to earn a regular place in the Premier League, plying his trade for Queens Park Rangers.
Moving to Middlesbrough, he likely saw the chance to establish himself in a Premier League side, and should they go down, he will be looking for suitors in England’s top-flight. A solid performance against Manchester United would be more than a good start, and Fabio will be completely aware of this.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Attacking Midfielder, Manchester United
Without Pogba, Ibrahimovic, and potentially Anthony Martial, Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s importance to United virtually triples. The elusive Armenian playmaker has been phenomenal since he broke into United’s starting eleven, and even better when deployed in a central role, which he almost certainly will be on Sunday.
Mkhitaryan’s unique blend of technical brilliance, searing pace, and pinpoint accuracy has yielded seven goals and five assists this season- the playmaker has been involved in a goal for United every 136 minutes, and he will be expected to do the same in a slightly less experienced side on Sunday. Matches in which United struggles to win are usually determined by key players, one of which is certainly Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Marcus Rashford, Striker, Manchester United
Many players motioned for Marcus Rashford to be United’s lead striker this season and were disappointed by the signing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Jose Mourinho opted not to sign a second striker for the Red Devils, but now, fans are moaning about that decision, claiming that Rashford was never ready to be a part of the side.
With Wayne Rooney injured and ruled out for selection on Sunday, Rashford is the only striker remaining in the senior squad, and he will be given his chance to shine. The teenager’s seven goals in 37 appearances are deceptive– in reality, most of those appearances were substitute cameos on the wing, which significantly dilutes his goal tally. Now, given the chance to prove himself against a relegation-threatened side, Rashford will need to show just how deceptive the statistics really are.