The first thing to say about Manchester United’s Europa League semi-final defeat to Sevilla is that they played well enough to win. On another night, if each team were to be presented with the same number and quality of chances all over again, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side could be confident of taking their place in Friday’s final against either Internazionale or Shakhtar Donetsk.
In that alternate reality, we would not be talking about how their performance rapidly deteriorated as fatigue set in during the second half. We would not be dissecting how a defence which has played more than 3,800 minutes on average this season was so easily pulled apart for both Sevilla goals. We would not be scrutinising Solskjaer’s failure to use a single one of his five substitutes before the 87th minute.
But even then, all those issues would still be just around the corner, ready to rear their head during Friday’s final, or in a month’s time when the Premier League returns, or at some other point in the not-too-distant future under Solskjaer’s management. That is because many of the issues United experienced against Sevilla related to one fundamental problem: a lack of squad depth.
It is hardly a secret. Since the lockdown, a picture of Solskjaer’s preferred starting line-up has crystallised. There have been variations every now and then – usually in the more conservative of the two central midfield roles, where Fred and Scott McTominay compete with Nemanja Matic – but otherwise, only injuries have forced the United manager to deviate from his first-choice XI.
Solskjaer simply appears to trust some of his players more than others. If Harry Maguire was a bar of soap, he would have been worn down to a nub by now. No player in world football has apparently played more minutes across all competitions during the 2019-20 season, according to one statistic which surfaced on Sunday night, and it is worth remembering that a significant amount of those minutes came while carrying a hip injury in January.
Victor Lindelof and Aaron Wan-Bissaka have played a similarly remarkable amount, featuring more than even first-choice goalkeeper David de Gea. Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford are two other Solskjaer favourites, while Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba have done well to earn more than 1,500 minutes each given that one was seriously injured at the turn of the year and the other was playing for Sporting.
If you need a reminder of those out of favour, look among the substitutes on Sunday night in Cologne. Daniel James was trusted at the start of the campaign but has averaged only half-an-hour on the pitch every time he appeared post-lockdown. Eric Bailly is given opportunities every now and again but cannot seem to take them. Odion Ighalo has started twice since lockdown, so too Jesse Lingard. That’s two more than Andreas Pereira, at least.
Solskjaer was inevitably asked about his reluctance to change things in his post-match press conference. “At times in games like this, when you create so many chances and openings, it’s difficult to take players with goals in them out of the pitch,” he said, leaving an inference there if you’re brave enough to draw it. “Mason, Marcus, Anthony, Bruno – they’re all goalscorers and they’ve been fantastic for us. They created enough today to score.”
That over-reliance on a single line-up will not do next season though, once there is Champions League football to play. United will be required to rotate and field strong XIs every three days through the most compact football schedule known for years. How are they ready to do that when – over the past few weeks, at the business end of the 2019-20 season – they largely relied on the same set of 11 players?
For some, the answer to United building a competitive squad is simple and you spelt it: ‘Jadon Sancho’. The Borussia Dortmund winger is undoubtedly a brilliant player and will fill a long-term gap on the right-hand side of Solskjaer’s attack if he arrives, but he alone is not going to cover the many positions in this squad that have one outstanding first-choice candidate and little backup to speak of.
If anything, with Greenwood playing well on the right, Sancho would become one of the few in the starting line-up with an able deputy. Meanwhile there is a more pressing need for options elsewhere: a centre-back to give Maguire a rest every now and again; a full-back to offer width, variance and attacking threat during Luke Shaw’s repeated absences; a creative midfielder to break up the Pogba-Fernandes axis every so often.
And even if depth reinforcements are possible after potentially spending on Sancho, squad building is a delicate and difficult art to master. After 18 months in the job, Solskjaer should know that much.
For all that some may argue his hands have been tied with this squad, many its players are here on his say so. James was his first signing and is only a year into his Old Trafford career, having arrived as the first brick in a new rebuild. Ighalo was a short-term punt that has become a year-long loan but the initial hype has dimmed slightly. Pereira, meanwhile, has barely played more than an hour since the restart but only signed a new contract just over 12 months ago.
Add McTominay, Bailly and Juan Mata and you have another three players currently struggling for regular playing time – and on the bench against Sevilla – who have extended their deals during Solskjaer’s spell as manager. They were presumably part of a long-term Solskjaer vision at some point or other. McTominay still is, perhaps Bailly too. But even if they weren’t, they should at least be able to provide cover when tiredness takes its toll late in a long campaign.
That was not the case for much of United’s run-in and not the case on Sunday evening either, until the 87th minute at least. Solskjaer’s willingness to wait that long to make his first substitution was the latest hint that he lacks faith in his second string to step in for his established first-choice line-up, but it was also a reminder of how difficult adding quality depth to this squad like this can be.
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