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What happens at Carrington; Manchester United’s training ground…

Manchester United’s first-team has just four competitive games this August, with participation in the UEFA Europa League and Carabao Cup set to begin next month. With that in mind, manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has taken the unusual step of arranging behind-closed-doors friendly matches, in order to give playing time to those who will not be heavily involved until the club begins its journey in other competitions.

One of these games, of course, took place a day after the final match of Tour 2019 against AC Milan in Cardiff, with a much-changed United XI playing the Blackburn Rovers’ under-23 team. At present, United’s first-team squad consists of around 30 players which is perhaps a few too many. This was the case a year ago as well. Solskjaer would struggle to keep every single player match fit with just one game a week over the next few weeks.

Competition in the Premier League is fierce enough that United can ill-afford rotating players for the sake of it. It’s become common practice at most Premier League clubs to start fringe players in the other competitions and then draft them into starting teams for league matches based on their performances in these games. 

These friendlies that United have scheduled offers players outside Solskjaer’s preferred XI to build and maintain match fitness while also attempting to impress the management team. Over the last seven weeks or so, United supporters have seen how much the Norwegian values the fitness of his players. These games will allow him to keep most if not all of the players in the squad at near full match fitness.

Sergio Romero and Lee Grant are unlikely to play this month so the friendly matches will offer the veteran ‘keepers a chance to gain some match practice for when they are needed. The same could be said for Diogo Dalot, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones as well as Ashley Young and Axel Tuanzebe, who were in the squad for United’s Premier League opener but did not take the field.

Marcos Rojo and Matteo Darmian have been linked with moves away from the club and they would no doubt like to remain match fit up until the close of the European transfer window on September 2. Fred, Angel Gomes and Tahith Chong missed out completely against Chelsea and will be given opportunities to force their way into Solskjaer’s plans. Chong and Gomes, in particular, will be eager to impress, having been left out of the reserve team’s matches in Premier League 2.

Alexis Sánchez meanwhile, begun pre-season much later than his teammates and as Solskjaer recently stated, he remains a few weeks behind them. The Chilean has struggled with injury in his time at United and this has undoubtedly affected his form. He’ll be hoping that getting back to full fitness will, in turn, get him back to his best and he certainly won’t be alone in this regard.

The game against the Blackburn team also included players who came off the bench against Milan the day before, and this trend could perhaps continue in the forthcoming matches. Players who come on as substitutes in the first-team matches may start the friendly games and play an hour or so. Their total minutes played for the week would then end up closer to 90, which is no doubt the preference of the manager and the players themselves.

These players will also use this opportunity to impress Solskjaer and force their way into his next starting XI. All in all, these games effectively serve as supplementary matches to the official fixtures. The major drawback, of course, is that they will be played against lower quality opposition, likely to be reserve and youth teams from nearby clubs.

This, however, raises the possibility of Solskjaer including players from United’s reserve and youth teams, although this would also be up to the head of first-team development, Nicky Butt, as well as reserve team manager Neil Wood. Having these players play with members of the first-team will enable them to begin integrating into the side while also allowing the coaches to compare the youngsters with the more seasoned professionals.

This also applies to the opposition teams, where players who impress in these games might catch the eye of United’s coaches and/or scouts. At a glance, this highlights signs of change from previous regimes at United. Solskjaer is taking a different approach to the last few United managers, in nearly every aspect of the job.

Judging by the players he has preferred and those he has signed, it’s quite clear that he favours hard-working individuals whom he can also develop as players. He will no doubt be looking to trim United’s squad over the next few years so he needs to filter out those who don’t fit this profile.  These matches give him the opportunity to begin doing this immediately.

Written by Shiven Nayager

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