The last international break of the season is almost in the rearview mirror.
For Manchester United, this means the beginning of a brutal stretch of fixtures that would make or break the season. At the start of the season, the most logical expectation would have been securing a top 4 place, and competing for a trophy or two. However, Erik ten Hag’s Reds are on course to exceed expectations. Now, with the trophy already in the bag, United begin their three-pronged assault on the remaining competitions.
Into the Europa League quarters, facing Brighton in the FA Cup semi-finals, and trying to finish as high as possible in the Premier League; United could play as many as 21 more games between now and the end of the season.
Naturally, this would mean a lot of opportunities for the fringe players.
There are players in this squad who are fighting for their future. Ten Hag has done a phenomenal job in extracting great results from this side. However, most fans and experts would agree that this squad is far from a title-challenging one. Furthermore, with potential new investment seemingly on the horizon, United might look like a very different outfit at the start of next season.
Here are five players who are fighting for their Manchester United future as the season enters the crunch part. To borrow Sir Alex Ferguson’s classic quote- “It’s squeaky bum time” for these players.
The future of Manchester United’s captaincy hangs in the balance. When Ten Hag arrived, it was expected that Harry Maguire’s playing style would not be best suited to a team that wishes to press in the opponent’s half with higher defensive lines than previously. So it has proved. Looking at the minutes played this season, Maguire has been relegated to United’s fourth choice centre-back.
Raphael Varane and Lisandro Martinez have formed one of Europe’s best centre-back partnerships and Victor Lindelof has played more minutes than Maguire. Even Luke Shaw has been preferred over Maguire at centre-back.
🚨 Maguire: "I shouldn't have to prove myself at this level. I have over 50 caps, I've played almost 200 times for Manchester United, captaining the club for three years, but I understand that when you're United captain, you are more scrutinized." #MUFC 🔴 pic.twitter.com/cEIZdWkiTL
— UtdPlug (@UtdPlug) March 25, 2023
Maguire has made just 12 starts this season, with a total of 24 appearances, ranking 18th in the squad in terms of minutes played. To his credit, he has never made a fuss about his reduced role and tried to help the team whenever called upon. However, he would likely look at options this summer, and United wouldn’t mind it as he is one of the few players at the club who can fetch a good amount. He’s too good to be fourth choice at United. Look for him to join a Premier League side just below the top six clubs, or follow Chris Smalling’s path to flourish in Italy.
Scott McTominay has enjoyed the international break. A brace for Scotland against Cyprus speaks volumes of a player who can unlock another level to his game when the team is tailored to his strengths and he is a key player. However, things haven’t been as rosy at the club level. Casemiro has shown what the team looks like with a proper defensive midfielder. McTominay works best as a player who attacks the box with a deep starting position. This role does not exist in an ideal Ten Hag team.
Therefore, he has had to perform a variety of roles this season, with most of his appearances coming as a sole defensive midfielder. Due to a paucity of options, he has managed to make 32 appearances (13 starts). However, the dropoff in quality from first-choice Casemiro is clear.
Scott McTominay scored a brace with Scotland today… and he could be one to follow in the summer. 🔴🏴 #MUFC
⚪️⚫️ Newcastle have his name in the list as target since January — ten Hag didn’t want Scott to leave two months ago but #NUFC keep following him. pic.twitter.com/FgFN4DX60a
— Fabrizio Romano (@FabrizioRomano) March 25, 2023
Newcastle have targeted him and for the right price, it would be a deal that makes sense for all parties. United can look to get a midfielder more in the mould of a ten Hag player while cashing in on a player who’s still very good, just not for United’s style of play.
The talent of Jadon Sancho, along with the investment the club made in him means that his future is not in immediate danger. However, time is running out for him to make good on his vast potential.
Signed from Dortmund in the summer of 2021 after a prolonged chase, he was pegged as the solution to United’s problems on the right wing. Two years and many false dawns later, he is trying to solidify his place in the team as a No 10, having been deployed on the right, left and through the centre as well.
🚨 Paul Scholes on Jadon Sancho: “At Dortmund before, he had a flying right-back going on all the time, which really helped him because he’s not a quick player, he’s more of a skilful player who wants to play football, he wants to play with his centre-forward and right-back.” 🔴 pic.twitter.com/nnrTRxglMj
— UtdPlug (@UtdPlug) March 18, 2023
Antony has made the right-wing place his own and Bruno Fernandes is the first name on the teamsheet as a No 10. Sancho has played the best football of his career at Man Utd off the left but that spot is sealed by Rashford. With attacking reinforcements expected in the summer and Amad flourishing in a No 10 role at Sunderland this season, the competition will get fiercer. These two months are Sancho’s best opportunity to show his long-term future belongs at United. Otherwise, the next season could be the beginning of the end of a career move that made perfect sense when it happened.
When fit and firing, Anthony Martial perfectly fits the prototype of an ideal Ten Hag striker. Wout Weghorst admitted recently that in ten Hag’s mind, Martial was clearly “his striker”. However, the idea of Martial in a ten Hag’s team has so far been more enticing than the reality of it. That is mostly because he has rarely been fit this season. He has managed just 718 minutes for the club this season, less than Cristiano Ronaldo’s total (1,055), who left the club in November.
🗣️ – Erik ten Hag on Anthony Martial's injuries: "Every person is different, so you have to treat every person different. This process you have to take really carefully and I do everything so that I get him ready to being available." #mufc pic.twitter.com/KuvJ3tOSgG
— UtdXclusive (@UtdXclusive) March 18, 2023
There have been flashes of potential in those minutes, as he has six goals and two assists in 718 minutes, having a goal contribution every 89.75 minutes. It is expected that Martial will be back in the fold post the international break. It is crucial for the French striker to be regularly available in the coming two months. Too much reliance on Weghorst this season has shown United lack a hitman upfront. If the club is already looking at potential strikers next window.
History has shown that the mercurial striker doesn’t always react well to competition. It is up to him to play out of his skin for the next two months to prove that he is a player United can count upon for goals, and for an extended period of time.
David de Gea
It is a bit weird to put United’s second-most appearance maker on this list. David de Gea is a club legend, who has carried the club through its darkest years. Ten Hag has also shown unwavering support to the Spaniard. However, there is a lingering feeling among the fanbase and pundits alike that a title-winning United squad probably won’t have De Gea as its first choice goalkeeper.
Ten Hag has had to work around De Gea’s weaknesses this season. On his day, the Spanish keeper is a top shot-stopper. However, teams demand so much more from their keepers these days. De Gea’s command of his area, ball-playing skills, and aerial domination leave a lot to be desired. Moreover, he is getting more and more error-prone. Unbelievable reflex saves followed by heart-in-the-mouth errors has become the staple De Gea experience.
Would you give David De Gea a new contract?🤔 #MUFC pic.twitter.com/5Ib4N53vBI
— Stretford Paddock (@StretfordPaddck) March 22, 2023
The club has been linked with more progressive/modern keepers in David Raya and Diogo Costa. De Gea has shown a willingness to work on his game and transition to a sweeper-keeper. However, his contract with astronomical wages of £375,000/week ends next season and there are talks of him getting a huge pay cut to extend his stay. That is the only way De Gea stays at United. Meanwhile, the club will be looking for a long-term replacement between the sticks.
De Gea has been a beacon of light in dark times for the club, but there is now a feeling that he will have to take a step back for the club to move into its bright era.
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