If there’s one thing that can be read into the unpredictable start to the Premier League season it’s that the lack of pre-season is having an impact on teams.
Rather than having weeks to gel as a unit, maybe some time away on tour to get to know each other off the pitch as well, teams are now having to do it on the fly. In many ways these first few weeks of the season are the pre-season.
Frank Lampard talked along those lines after Chelsea’s draw with Manchester United at the weekend, saying instead of building “relationships” on the training pitch they are now “working on them in-game to try and get a lot of improvement”.
United are in the same boat, but unlike Chelsea - who did most of their transfer business earlier in the summer - they are also having to integrate two Deadline Day signings into the team.
It has, perhaps unsurprisingly, led to the impression that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer doesn’t know his best starting XI yet.
In United’s eight games this season Solskjaer has only named the same starting line-up in two of them – the 4-1 win over Newcastle and the 0-0 draw with Chelsea.
David de Gea is a certain starter for now, even with Dean Henderson on the bench, and most of the defence seems set, with Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw starting all five league games and Victor Lindelof and Aaron Wan-Bissaka both starting four. Axel Tuanzebe is yet to play a minute in the league this season despite his impressive showing in the 2-1 win over Paris Saint-Germain.
The glaring question for the defence is how to fit Alex Telles in; and whether it requires a shift to a 3-4-1-2 as against PSG.
Then the midfield is where things have proved really tricky for Solskjaer.
The continued omission of summer signing Donny van de Beek has drawn questions while Paul Pogba, Juan Mata, Fred and Scott McTominay have been rotated – with mixed success. The only guaranteed starter has been Bruno Fernandes. Up front it has been similar with only Marcus Rashford starting all five league games, although Anthony Martial would probably have done too if he wasn’t serving a three-game ban.
Edinson Cavani (L) and Alex Telles have hardly featured so far for Manchester United
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Is it a case of Solskjaer making changes to counter the opposition? Or, by leaving signings on the bench, is he trying to prove a point that he didn’t get the players he really wanted over the summer?
Either way, Solskjaer is surely opening himself up to criticism when he starts Pogba, Van de Beek, Cavani and Mason Greenwood on the bench and United don’t win, as happened against Chelsea. He did similar against Newcastle only to be bailed out by the substitutes as Pogba and Van de Beek came on and helped spark a late flurry of goals.
But banking on substitutes to win games is surely not the way to go for United.
A month into the season, Solskjaer should have an idea of his strongest starting XI. Maybe he is waiting for the new signings to be properly integrated, maybe he doesn’t know how to properly utilise Cavani and Telles yet. But if players are having to build bonds on the pitch – as Lampard said at the weekend – is it not better to get the new signings in now instead of continuing with Juan Mata (an excellent player but at 32 not the future for United) and Dan James, who looks short of confidence and quality at the moment?
Donny van de Beek is yet to start a Premier League game for Man Utd
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Telles in particular looks an exciting, attacking option on the left while former England striker Michael Owen was full of praise for Cavani after his brief debut against Chelsea, saying he “loves” his movement and reckons he could “score a few”. There's also Greenwood to come in, although his selection appears to have been impacted by off-the-pitch problems.
As for Van de Beek. Plenty has been written about his lack of action, but how much longer can Solskjaer keep him out of his Premier League XI? The United manager responded to a question about the midfielder at the weekend with “it’s easy to say who should be playing and more difficult to say who shouldn’t”.
With ample quality on the bench that might always be the case, but Solskjaer needs to find a successful XI soon and settle on it.