Against FC Copenhagen and in the routine second leg win against LASK, Solskjaer gave appearances to many of his younger and reserve players. Sergio Romero, Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard, Brandon Williams, Fred, Eric Bailly, Andreas Pereira and Tahith Chong all featured in one or both of the last two games, and while the club negotiated their way to the semi-finals, it highlighted a significant weakness.
United’s squad has, perhaps since the last couple of years under Alex Ferguson, needed more of a chainsaw than a scalpel to cut out the deadwood. The only manager out of Solskjaer, David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho to actually persuade Ed Woodward to start binning unwanted players is the Norwegian. His priority is to fix the mentality of those who are at the club first, with the quality of their replacements the next consideration.
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Getting rid of Romelu Lukaku - excellent now at Inter Milan - as well as Alexis Sanchez, Chris Smalling, Marcos Rojo and others is a necessary but incomplete step. Lingard should be next, with Mata and Pereira likely to follow him. However the replacements so far have been insufficient. There are reasons to be optimistic or pleased with all of Bruno Fernandes, Odion Ighalo, Daniel James, Aaron Wan Bissaka and Harry Maguire, but that is five players in compared to at least 10 who have been sold or simply are not good enough. That means for Solskjaer he has to rely upon his best players, and does not have the luxury of dropping players out of form, or protecting them from overexertion.
Solskjaer’s first eleven, when on form and injury-free, would surely have the beating of Sevilla, but he does not have that. He has a group of players who have struggled through the return of football after coronavirus with an abridged pre-season, and with the same players who played the majority of every single match. You can criticise Solskjaer for not rotating more, and for not better preparing his players to be fit enough, but there were no obvious and superior ways to get through the season with Champions League qualification as the priority.
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With third place achieved, Solskjaer has a first-choice team who are showing signs of exhaustion. Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford are both coming back from serious surgery. David de Gea looks to be mentally shattered, perhaps for good. Fernandes started brilliantly but it looks as if the adrenaline carrying him and the rest of the side has worn out, and something similar seems to have brought James into his own major slump. Perhaps only Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood are at the top of their game.
Sevilla, meanwhile, are unbeaten in their last 19 games. Two of those games included draws against both Atletico Madrid and Barcelona, and before beating Wolves took the scalp of Roma in their previous game. They are no mugs, and while this kind of ineffable motif is not hugely important, they are seen as Europa League specialists. Something like that can be ignored if it doesn’t get into your head, but if United were to go one-nil down they might be beaten by their own subconscious. Given their physical and mental state, it would be no surprise if they did not yet possess the strength to overturn adversity.
Nevertheless, Solskjaer will have had five full days of rest before his side next plays. That should be enough to reinvigorate the team’s mindset and also their limbs. If it does not, then the blame can be put squarely on the manager’s shoulders. Whether he fails or succeeds in that endeavour, nobody should overlook the difficult task he has in front of him this week.
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