Manchester United kicked off their Premier League campaign for 2019/20 with a bang, defeating rivals Chelsea 4-0. The game was not without its challenges for the Red Devils, who rode their luck on a number of occasions before eventually killing the game off in the second half. United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer reiterated the club’s commitment towards its younger players towards the end of last season and backed this up with his team selection for the game.
Most notably, Solskjaer selected new signings Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire over Ashley Young and Chris Smalling, who appeared more often than not last season. Scott McTominay, 22, started the game ahead of Nemanja Matić, who recently turned 31. Overall, the starting line-up had an average age of 24 years and 227 days, making it the youngest to be named in the first round of the 2019/20 Premier League season.
David De Gea, who captained the team, was the oldest player to start, at 28. Even on the bench, there were signs that younger players were being favoured by the Norwegian as Axel Tuanzebe, 21, was selected ahead of Smalling, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo. As Solskjaer had promised, 17-year-old Mason Greenwood stepped off the bench along with new signing Daniel James, 21, who opened his goalscoring account for the club. Juan Mata was the only player above the age of 30 to take the field for United, with Solskjaer opting to have a mix of youth and experienced players on the bench, which also included Young, Matić and Sergio Romero.
This is in keeping with previous eras at United, where the playing time of the club’s senior players were carefully managed so that they could perform at the requisite level when they were called upon. At times last season, it was painfully obvious that Young and Matić, in particular, were fatigued after playing consecutive games only a few days apart. Their performance levels suffered as a result of not having enough recovery time between matches, something which takes longer and longer as a player gets older.
The signing of Wan-Bissaka and Solskjaer’s showing of faith in McTominay has probably relegated both Young and Matić to the fringes of United’s first-choice XI. Matić seems the likelier of the two to get more game time in the near future, as United’s midfield struggled at times against Chelsea, particularly in the first half. This, of course, may change as the players get used to the new approach and to playing with each other.
In the meantime, the more senior members of United’s squad offer Solskjaer a safety net of sorts, as he can play them when the younger players go through periods of inconsistency. These players may also bring some leadership qualities along with their experience but United did not seem to lack this against the Blues, with even debutant Maguire coming to the fore in this respect.
The younger players have all been chosen because they are more suited to the style of play Solskjaer is looking to implement. Tuanzebe and Maguire are better ball-playing defenders than Jones, Smalling and Rojo, while they also possess the potential to dominate physical duels against their opponents. McTominay possesses physical attributes similar to Matić, while also being more mobile than him.
The Scot has also improved his dribbling and range of passing and it may yet become a key facet of his game. This makes him a completely different type of defensive midfielder to Matić, one that is more appropriate to the high-intensity approach Solskjaer is insistent upon. The Norwegian has also put his faith in Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford to come up with the goods in attack this season, to the point that Romelu Lukaku was sold without a replacement being brought in.
The duo did not disappoint, scoring three of the four goals against Chelsea while the Frenchman played an important role in the build-up to the fourth goal. Together with Jesse Lingard and Andreas Pereira, the two forwards played in a fluid attacking line which changed shape a number of times during the match. The attack, which was ably supported by Paul Pogba, profited from a number of counter-attacks after winning the ball back by putting pressure on their opponents.
The season is just one game old and United supporters,
Tuanzebe, Fred, Diogo Dalot, Angel Gomes, James Garner and Tahith Chong played no part and they are definitely in the manager’s plans for the season. These players, along with the injured Eric Bailly and Timothy Fosu-Mensah, are perhaps suited to Solskjaer’s new approach and will hopefully be integrated over the course of the season. Looking further ahead, United will also be hopeful that on-loan Dean Henderson has a good season in the Premier League with Sheffield United.
The Englishman, like De Gea, possesses the shot-stopping skills and footwork to be the first-choice goalkeeper at United. Henderson performed well in his Premier League debut against Bournemouth while United reserve team incumbent Matej Kovar also demonstrated his abilities during their impressive victory over Rotherham United in the EFL Trophy.
The Czech was not alone in this regard, as defenders, Ethan Laird and Lee O’Connor, midfielder Dylan Levitt and forward Largie Ramazani have stood out as the reserves kicked off the 2019/20 season with two wins from two. Solskjaer has begun to deliver on his promise to play young players and this undoubtedly bodes well for the future of United.
He has received public backing from the club that he will be allowed the time to mould this squad in his image and it is now time for these players to repay the faith he has shown in them. This season also represents an opportunity for him to prove himself as a top-level manager, as he will be looking to get the most out of every single player available to him, in his attempt to return United to the top.
Written by Shiven Nayager