Now that the final international break of the year is over as the 2018 World Cup dawns, it’s time for the nitty-gritty of the season. Returning to Old Trafford, United host Newcastle United at 5:30pm on Saturday. With two managers who have history in the Premier League but are in respectively unique situations at this time, this match is set to be crunch one.
The North East side, who come back into the top flight following a year of dominating the Championship, have started their season in very solid fashion. A run of three wins to begin with have them a platform but have since won just one in six and that came against the then bottom placed team. Top sides come up in the coming weeks for Rafael Benítez’s men starting with United.
A quiet summer transfer window for Newcastle is starting to show but their initial loanee from Borussia Dortmund and now permanent addition to the squad Mikel Merino has been near to exceptional at times for the Magpies. However, he is out injured for the foreseeable future. A team made up mostly of lower division proven players will lack youthful skipper Jamaal Lascelles, Paul Dummett, Massadio Haidara and Christian Atsu for this weekend’s match too.
That means the usually relied upon 4-2-3-1, like the last match they played, could be changed to a 4-4-2, which (whilst being less defensive by nature) may trouble José Mourinho’s back line with double forward threat. The last time these sides met was in a season where both matches were opposite-style draws; with 0-0 & 3-3 score lines showing it. Despite Old Trafford not being a much feared venue for the Tyneside, the level of resilience at home Mourinho and his teams’ over the years is formidable to say the least.
Those men have been less formidable as of late and fell under harsh criticism during the last period of matches between breaks. There’s now an air of negativity around the club but there are things to be positive about. Some seeming straightforward fixtures come now for a short period of time and players such as Anthony Martial, Henrik Mkhitaryan and Romelu Lukaku Return from very positive International breaks giving some reasons to be cheerful. Due to the fact crucial crunch fixtures are ahead for the Red Devils prior to the festive period and the league table will begin to shape-up, Mourinho will now need to know the players he can rely on.
A shock return to the side for Marouane Fellaini in the defeat prior to the break and Marcos Rojo playing 45 minutes for the reserves in midweek, whilst the club held their annual Unicef gala in which they earned around £160,000, means that players are beginning to come back into the fold. However, the big coming from Mourinho in his press conference was that (incredibly) both Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimović, as well as Rojo, will be included in the matchday squad which means the injury woes seem almost vanquished. In addition, Michael Carrick, who is close to making a comeback, and Phil Jones who was unsurprisingly injured on International duty will face assessments to see if they could be included in the squad.
That does still mean that there is a multitude of options that United could utilise in this match. Despite not being called up for his country, Chris Smalling will be looking to show his worth next to Eric Bailly who couldn’t help his nation reach Russia next summer. A man who will likely representing his county there is Victor Lindelöf, who could be given a chance. As a 4-2-3-1 is expected to be played, the left-back and left-wing spots are yet again the most in-demand. With Ashley Young fresh off the back of an England call-up and both Daley Blind & Matteo Darmian knowing they won’t be at next summer’s World Cup, there’s no real first-choice even with Luke Shaw hindering on a place in the squad. Any of those players could be used in that spot but the left-wing place is a less contended one numerically. With Martial and Marcus Rashford both showing quality this season, they are yet to nail down places in the squad as Romelu Lukaku or even Ibrahimović at some point will be holding the place up front, leaving only that wide position up for grabs. Creative men Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan will likely make up the rest of the forward line over Jesse Lingard in front of the ever-consistent Nemanja Matić and either Fellaini, Pogba or Ander Herrera.
All United will want is the win. As they are still yet to concede a league goal at Old Trafford and are unbeaten there, the Theatre of Dreams is showing real potential to be a fortress this campaign for Mourinho’s men. Craig Pawson will referee the match.
So with two teams who harbour huge fan bases both in Great Britain and worldwide facing off in a game that may mean more than meets the eye, it could be a chaotic encounter. Aims and objectives are different for United and Newcastle respectively this season but never underestimate a match between the pair. It’s all to play for this weekend as Premier League football gets back underway.