Manchester United’s winning run came to an abrupt halt with a disappointing draw under the spotlight against Liverpool. However, in matches against Stoke City and Hull City in two different competitions, the Red Devils have two key opportunities to bounce back in style, recapturing the same form that yielded nine consecutive wins and throw the Red Devils right back into competition on all four fronts (though maybe a little bit out of the Premier League).
However, while these matches are against small sides, they represent great importance, as major rivals will be pitted against each other in other key matches and forced to drop points. Consequently, wins can place United back into the top four, and perhaps even as high as second with four wins and a victory over Manchester City in the next five Premier League matches. While this seems like a bit of a pushover fixture list, it actually happens to be the most important match of the season, and key players will need to be fit and firing to cancel out the best players from other sides in the vastly talented English Premier League.
Marko Arnautovic, Winger, Stoke City
Inconsistent. Explosive. Frustrating. Prolific. Marko Arnautovic is one of the Premier League’s classic hype players, and after an inconsistent start to the season, he temporarily silenced his doubters with a great performance and two goals against Sunderland last week. Arnautovic was easily Stoke’s best player last season, scoring ten and assisting six goals in the Premier League and carrying the Potters through Xherdan Shaqiri’s poor patches, but he almost never gets the attention he deserves, despite being ridiculous.
However, since a disappointing Euro 2016 campaign with Austria, Arnautovic has slowed down immensely, and a good performance at Manchester United could be the beginning of a superb final few months to finally seal a move to one of Europe’s (more) elite clubs. I could easily see the Austrian playing for a Champions League side, if not of the calibre of the English ones, and if he shows that quality against Manchester United, the Red Devils will have a handful of problems to combat.
Joe Allen, Attacking Midfielder, Stoke City
Allen’s trajectory has been somewhat opposite to Arnautovic over the course of the last six months after a phenomenal Euro 2016 with Wales earned the Liverpool midfielder a move to Stoke. Since then, he hasn’t been as good as he was in the summer in France, but he has still been nothing short of an exceptional signing for Stoke, becoming the heart of their midfield and providing goals and assists at key moments. Primarily a central midfielder, Allen has 5 goals and 2 assists in the Premier League this season, which is more than comparable to Paul Pogba for United (though the comparison ends at goal tally).
The main asset of Joe Allen’s play is passing, as far as I’ve seen. While he doesn’t possess the incisive, aggressive passing of Ander Herrera, the pinpoint accuracy of Paul Pogba, or the silky distribution of Michael Carrick, Allen has an excellent sense of tempo, able to slow down and speed up the pace of Stoke’s attack and the opposition at very quick speeds. With Allen controlling the tempo of the match, Joe Ledley breaking up play, and Aaron Ramsey creating chances for Wales, the Stoke midfielder controlled a midfield that contained the likes of Radja Nainggolan, Kevin De Bruyne, and Axel Witsel, and there’s no reason why he can’t create similar magic against Manchester United, if afforded the time and space.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Striker, Manchester United
A phenomenal player, to say the least, Ibrahimovic hasn’t received any of the deserved praise for his clutch-strike against Liverpool, a great diving header that gave United a point. Ibrahimovic is completely vital to everything happening at Manchester United, from scoring goals to providing a presence of leadership, and he has proven that he is nothing short of the player needed to marshal the next era of talents into the world stage.
Scoring 19 goals for Manchester United in all competitions thus far, he stands to be the most prolific United striker in a single season in the post-Ferguson era, and with the likes of Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, and Radamel Falcao at Manchester United in that space of time, that is a great feat for a 35-year-old. In great shape despite his age and as the joint-top scorer in the Premier League, Ibrahimovic possesses the potential to take his season to the next level, especially if his goals finally fire United into the top four.
Marcus Rashford, Striker, Manchester United
While Ibrahimovic is an incredible striker who will likely play the whole 90 minutes against Stoke, I get the sense this could be a close match for Manchester United, and in close matches, big impact players can come on and make a difference from the bench. Marcus Rashford, after a few great performances deputising for the big Swede in attack, was not afforded this opportunity against Liverpool, but I suspect he will be against Stoke.
With 6 goals in various positions in attack for United this season and 18 goals since February at the tender age of 19, it is clear to everyone that Marcus Rashford has the potential to reach the level of the top strikers in football in the future, but he is already very important for United, as shown by his heroics as United searched for a goal against West Ham United. If the match comes close to a draw or loss towards the end, Jose Mourinho and Manchester United will be reliant on Marcus Rashford, or like-minded players, to change the match.