Opinion: What is Manchester United’s best Starting XI?

Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard

Manchester United’s start to life under Jose Mourinho hasn’t been nearly as bad as most have claimed it to be. With seven wins and a draw in United’s first 11 games, the Red Devils have picked up an equivalent of two points per game- which is not world class, but very good. That being said, the competition in the upper echelon of the Premier League this season is fiercer than ever. Almost two points per game in the Premier League would normally have a team well into the top four, but United sits in sixth. Liverpool, in fourth place, currently projects to a staggering 86 points, and while the top teams surely won’t retain such form, it is easy to imagine United will need to get at least 76 points (two per game) to even finish in fourth this season.

Fourth isn’t bad, but it wasn’t the original target, which was to finish atop the league. Pessimism has caused many United fans to be outspoken about the club’s non-status in the title race after just seven games, but United is only five points behind City and four behind Mauricio Pochettino’s rampant Tottenham side (who look favourites to me). United would’ve been in the top four if not for an existential crisis of a football match against West Ham United in the third-last match of the year, and just ten matches before, they were six points out of it. The best part is, we’ve probably already seen the worst period of form the Red Devils have to offer this season- none of the top four teams have done so yet.

For the first time in a long time, United’s firepower isn’t the sword with which United will fight into the title race. One thing that is undoubted, though, is United’s incredible squad depth, well beyond any club in England. Not only does United’s squad have twenty-six players (about twenty of whom could easily start in a title-winning side), there is also a growing collection of youth players pushing into the senior side. However, depth means nothing if the best Starting XI is completely in question, which it is right now. Who makes it into this side? Each position, barring David de Gea himself, still has some debate.

Right Side Defenders: Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Eric Bailly

While the left end of United’s back four can start some debate, I think Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Eric Bailly are comfortable winners here. At right-back, Antonio Valencia has established himself as a player this season, but I feel as if most people are more impressed with him in comparison to expectations. Matteo Darmian seems more suited to playing left-back, where he can attack with his passing in a similar fashion to Cesar Azpilicueta in Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea side. Though Fosu-Mensah may be a midfielder, playing in defence is better than not playing. In the centre of defence, Eric Bailly needs to play, firstly because he seems to be the best option and secondly because he is the future.

Left Side Defenders: Chris Smalling and Daley Blind

This seems a little bit tough on Luke Shaw, but it isn’t once I explain. Daley Blind needs to start, firstly, and United clearly struggles every time he is removed from the team. It then becomes a toss-up of two variables- firstly, which position is Blind’s best and secondly, whether Chris Smalling or Luke Shaw should be in the team. I’ve come to the conclusion I think works best- a balance. Shaw seems to be suffering from burnout and I think less matches will help him recover from his injury to be in the first team next season, but he should still play around 30 games.

Midfielders: Ander Herrera, Morgan Schneiderlin, Paul Pogba

In midfield, Ander Herrera has looked great in a deeper role, but he was nearly exposed a couple of times and adding Morgan Schneiderlin in the big games keeps Herrera protected behind the two Frenchman, who will be free to (finally) play their best football at United. However, in smaller fixtures, Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan could play together (one in central midfield and one on the right). Then, in big matches, the player in better form takes their place on the right with Schneiderlin in the centre.

Forwards: Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Anthony Martial

The selection on the right is explained above. Mkhitaryan is currently struggling for fitness but he will undoubtedly be the best option, both now and moving forward. He’s the best technician at the club by far. Zlatan Ibrahimovic picks himself with his goal scoring abilities, and often he needs a foil, which is why Anthony Martial comes in on the left. Martial will be somewhat of a forward, running beyond Ibrahimovic as Pogba dips into the left channel and causing havoc. It’s also a proper role for Marcus Rashford.

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