Even at this early stage of the season, Saturday night’s trip to Newcastle United has a ‘must-win’ feeling to it for Manchester United.
Left to stew on the humiliating defeat to Tottenham Hotspur during the international break, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer knows that failure to beat the Magpies will only intensify the pressure on him ahead of a daunting run that includes trips to Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea, and home games against RB Leipzig and Arsenal over the next two-and-a-half weeks.
Solskjaer’s main decision regarding the defence was made easier by Eric Bailly’s injury on international duty with Ivory Coast, meaning Victor Lindelof should return to partner Harry Maguire at centre-back.
The Norwegian’s attacking plans, however, require much more deliberation.
With Anthony Martial suspended following his red card in the Tottenham loss, United were this week dealt a blow by the news that new signing Edinson Cavani will have to wait for his debut due to coronavirus regulations, with the Uruguayan striker having begun his 14-day self-isolation period on October 4.
Without his two main centre-forward options, we look at how Solskjaer might shuffle United’s attacking pack for Newcastle.
Solskjaer has lined up in a 4-2-3-1 in each of United’s three league games so far this season. Bruno Fernandes, Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford are all expected to start on Saturday, while Donny van de Beek should be given his full league debut in Martial’s absence.
The Dutchman has had to exercise patience following his summer arrival from Ajax, having been introduced as a late substitute in all three of United’s league outings.
Despite his limited game-time, however, he has still managed to open his goalscoring account, firing home what proved to be a consolation on his debut against Crystal Palace in United’s first Premier League outing of the campaign.
It seems unlikely that Solskjaer will deploy Van de Beek in one of his two deeper midfield roles. While Paul Pogba’s form has dipped alarmingly, the Frenchman is one of four defensive midfield options with Fred, Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic all expected to be under consideration.
Dutchman Van de Beek should then slot comfortably into one of the three roles behind the main striker, offering him the opportunity to establish a connection with Fernandes while showcasing his creative capabilities.
Right-footed, it seems plausible that the 23-year-old will line up on the left-hand side of the three, where he would be free to cut inside and open up Newcastle’s defence with his penetrative passing.
With Fernandes primed to occupy the central attacking-midfield spot, that leaves Rashford and Greenwood.
Provided Solskjaer sticks with a 4-2-3-1, Greenwood would be the leading candidate to line up on the right.
While comfortable on both feet, the 19-year-old has previously indicated that he feels stronger on his left and lining up on the right flank would allow the teenager to cut inside and shoot from the edge of the area, one of his trademark moves.
Rashford, then, should step into Martial’s role up top. It is a role the 22-year-old has performed on several occasions and one that would allow him to act as the spearhead of United’s attacks.
With two goals already this season, it would offer the England striker the best chance to improve his tally in Martial’s absence.
United’s forwards can be fluid in-game, meaning Rashford and Greenwood would be comfortable with swapping roles if a change in tack was required.
Of course, if Solskjaer switches to a 4-3-3, he may field a three-pronged attack of Van de Beek, Rashford and Greenwood with Fernandes as the most advanced midfielder.
Another alternative is adopting a three-man defence of Maguire, Lindelof and Luke Shaw, with new signing Alex Telles at left wing-back and Aaron Wan-Bissaka on the opposite side.
A midfield three of Pogba – or Matic should Solskjaer opt to drop the Frenchman – Fernandes and van de Beek would support a two-man attack of Rashford and Greenwood. However, that system – with or without Pogba – seems too radical a departure.
Whichever way Solskjaer shapes his side, taking three points away from St James’ Park is imperative after an unsettling start to the season.
There are positional questions to be answered regarding Greenwood and Rashford, and while it may be too soon for Facundo Pellistri’s debut, Newcastle should be the match in which Van de Beek kickstarts his United career.
Possible XI: De Gea; Wan-Bissaka, Lindelof, Maguire, Telles; Pogba, Matic; Greenwood, Fernandes, Van de Beek; Rashford.