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Manchester United’s position in the global football spotlight is such that nothing apart from the most secret of transfer or commercial dealings happens under the radar.
When it comes to positions on the pitch, fans pored over every detail and possible permutation before the season started.
Therefore, it might be tricky to unearth a secret battle, but there are a few more well-known battles that are worth keeping an eye on. In increasing order of renown, from most relatively obscure to least, here are the big areas where there is a position up for grabs and more than one player fighting for it.
Victor Lindelof vs. Phil Jones vs. Chris Smalling vs. Marcos Rojo
Eric Bailly is going to be in United’s defence when he is fit and manager Jose Mourinho is playing his first XI. The Ivorian has been a huge success at Old Trafford, beloved by fans for his combination of robust, traditional defending and eye for improvisation and flair.
The key question relates to who lines up next to him. For the moment, it is Phil Jones, with summer signing Victor Lindelof being given the Henrikh Mkhitaryan-style needs-to-adapt-to-the-Premier League treatment by his manager. Something, incidentally, that never happened to Bailly, who was thrown straight in.
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Jones has been excellent during United’s first couple of games this term, but this is no surprise. There is an argument to say he is United’s most underrated player, a figure of fun because of his outlandish facial expressions and the odd headed tackle at floor level. But when fit, he is an assured and competent defender. The “when fit” caveat, though, is crucial given how much injury has plagued his career.
Lindelof remains something of an unknown quantity to those who have not watched much Primeira Liga football over the past few years and had his struggles during pre-season with United. Given he was Mourinho’s pick and that the United boss most certainly knows how to pick a centre-back, though, there is a decent chance he will come good.
Chris Smalling will likely have to content himself with a role as back-up option. Unlike Jones, Smalling has generally struggled for United. He hit a good spell of form for a while under Louis van Gaal, but that was an exception rather than the rule.
Marcos Rojo recently arrived back in training and last season demonstrated he can be an asset to Mourinho at centre-back.
There will be times when Mourinho plays a back three. And even when employing back four he last season showed a predilection for changing both centre-backs if one were unavailable—almost as if he trains a couple of alternative partnerships. But these are all ambitious players, and all will want a shot at regular first-team action. It will be intriguing to watch this one progress.
Ander Herrera vs. Juan Mata or Henrikh Mkhitaryan
The intuitive battle might be between Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic for a place alongside Paul Pogba in the centre of United’s midfield, but that fight seems to be over already. Herrera did a superb job as a makeshift holding midfielder last season—good enough to see him voted Player of the Year by the club’s fans—but it is not his natural game.
Need to see this celebration soon , Mata and Herrera keeping it classy.
Matic, on the other hand, has built a career on setting other midfielders free. West Ham United and Swansea City are far from the toughest teams United will face this season, but it is already clear just what an impact Matic’s presence will have on Pogba in particular and United’s attack in general.
Herrera’s best route into the team, then, is through a change of system, something that will likely happen against tougher sides. A 4-3-3 will mean Mourinho has to drop either Herrera’s friend Juan Mata or the four-assists-in-two-games Mkhitaryan. It will likely be the former, with Mkhitaryan moved out wide and Herrera brought into midfield. But Mourinho might have a surprise or two left up his sleeve.
Luke Shaw vs. Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo, Matteo Darmian, Himself and Jose Mourinho
We are out of the under-the-radar box now, but this has the potential to be one of the season’s most important battles. Luke Shaw has competition for the left-back or left-wing-back berth, but not one of Rojo, Daley Blind or Matteo Darmian can live with him at his best. It is not even close.
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Luke Shaw gives an update on his injury and Mourinho #mufc https://t.co/dIMLi75zeJ
Thus Shaw’s battle will be with himself and with his manager. Mourinho would value a fully fit and in-form Shaw over any of the rivals for his position. It is just that fully fit and in-form have not been the England international’s default positions at any point since Mourinho arrived in 2016.
It is not entirely of his making. Recovering from an injury like the one he suffered when his leg was broken by PSV Eindhoven’s Hector Moreno in the 2015/16 Champions League campaign is a big deal.
But he needs to do whatever it takes to get himself firing again. United need it too because he is in a different class to his positional rivals. If he can replicate Antonio Valencia’s contribution on the opposite flank, the Red Devils will be better balanced and even more dangerous going forward. This one is a big deal.
Anthony Martial vs. Marcus Rashford
The biggest positional battle of all has already been playing itself out. If we assume Romelu Lukaku has the No. 9 spot locked down—and it is hard to think of many safer assumptions—then two brilliantly talented forwards are going to be competing for one place on United’s left wing.
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“It would be unfair.”
Gary Neville doesn’t want Anthony Martial to replace Marcus Rashford in Man United XI – https://t.co/MFqmJW3AHj https://t.co/OMnTO161Al
Marcus Rashford has started both Premier League games this season, relentlessly exhausted the opposition full-back for around 70 or 80 minutes and then Anthony Martial has come on to score. But Martial will not be happy as a super-sub. And nor is it a role which befits his level of talent.
It will be interesting to see for how long Rashford is happy playing away from what has so far looked like his best position: centre-forward.
There are plenty of games in the calendar, particularly if United do well in the cups and in Europe, but these two are clearly natural first-teamers. And given they are both young and both forwards, maintaining their confidence levels while rotating them will be a big challenge for Mourinho.
This is still in “good problem to have” territory, but two into three does not go. Therefore, there will be a lot of competition in this spot. United fans will be hoping that competition stays healthy and keeps getting the best out of everyone involved—as it has during the first part of this season—but there could be challenges ahead.
Mourinho should be pretty happy, though. Almost everywhere on the pitch, he has decent back-up options and, in a few spots, better than that.
Much of United’s season will depend on how well he manages these battles.