Three games to go until Manchester United can forget this wretched season. Three matches, at home to Brentford and away at Brighton and Crystal Palace, for fans and many of the players to go through the motions before being able to consign a miserable campaign to the history books and never speak of it again.
But is there an opportunity here for United to get a head-start on the Erik ten Hag era? Here are five ways United can salvage something from what’s left of the season…
1) Draw a line under the past by using only the players who will be at United next season
We don’t yet know exactly which players they may be. Gary Neville expects Ten Hag to oversee a “brutal transition” and there is no question that a great number will be shown the door this summer.
We do know, though, that those out of contract at the end of the season won’t be sticking around. So what is to be gained by playing them now?
Granted, of those players approaching free agency, only really Nemanja Matic has been involved regularly of late. Paul Pogba and Edinson Cavani will tell you they are injured; Juan Mata has had the odd cameo; Jesse Lingard had been a regular on the bench prior to being omitted from the squad to face Chelsea.
Matic has been involved because of injuries to Scott McTominay and Fred, both of whom should be available for the Bank Holiday game against Brentford. With almost nothing to play for, it serves no-one other than Matic and his prospects of a decent move to play him in the remaining three games. Perhaps allow any number of him, Mata and Lingard a cameo at the end of the Brentford game to say farewell to the home supporters, assuming many of them stick around that long.
Pogba and Cavani need not say goodbye given they have long since f***ed off.
2) Blood the youngsters
Out with the old, in with the new – the ‘new’, in the short-term at least, being some of the youngsters to have come through United’s academy.
Ralf Rangnick gave midfielder Hannibal Mejbri a few minutes at the end of United’s humiliation at Liverpool and forward Alejandro Garnacho had even less time off the bench when he was offered a senior debut in injury time against Chelsea.
Now the interim boss has the chance to give each a proper chance to shine rather than just the gesture of a cameo.
Similar goes for winger Shola Shoretire and left-back Alvaro Fernandez, who were also primed and ready to come off the bench against Chelsea. In three games against mid-table opposition, with little on the line for either side, rarely will United get the chance to see what these kids can do in a competitive-ish environment.
3) Try Ten Hag’s preferred system
Reportedly, Ten Hag is already squirrelling away for United on the condition the Red Devils don’t bother him 48 hours before Ajax play. So it would not be an unreasonable request for Rangnick to dabble with the new manager’s preferred formation in the three games that are left.
Ten Hag has predominantly used 4-3-3 at Ajax while also employing a 4-2-3-1, which also happens to be Rangnick’s formation of choice. Or, rather, it is the only shape he trusts these players to stick with since they’ve proven unable or unwilling to thrive in any other setup.
We have to assume Rangnick has sounded out Ten Hag on what shape he might prefer to use from the start of his reign, and while whatever answer he offers will involve new players, there is no harm in seeing how the current crop might cope in a 4-3-3.
If the squad is told it is Ten Hag’s choice rather than Rangnick, it might motivate some of them to open their minds and give it their best shot, which many haven’t done for the interim manager.
4) Give Marcus Rashford a break
It is hard to fathom what else United can do with Rashford to reignite the spark in the forward. He played from the start against Chelsea and looked every bit as downtrodden as he has all season. If anything, his performances and body language are getting more worrying from United’s perspective.
Rangnick could keep playing Rashford and hope that his fortunes turn around in one of the three games remaining, allowing the striker to end the season on a high. But it has already reached the point where it appears United are flogging a dead horse.
And it is no surprise that Rashford is knackered. Every season as a senior pro has lasted until at least mid-June, with the forward featuring in a couple of European Championships, the 2018 World Cup, the Nations League finals and other England summer internationals. Last summer seemed to take the biggest toll, with a half-fit Rashford watching much of the Euros from the bench before missing a crucial penalty in the final shoot-out.
He then underwent shoulder surgery, causing him to miss the start of the season and upon returning he has never looked quite the same, either for Rangnick or Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Only he and his family know what else might be affecting him away from the pitch.
Many reckon United and Rashford need a break from each other, which is probably true, only not a permanent arrangement as some suggest. But there is more to be gained for both parties by sending Rashford off on holiday now. Since he has lost his spot in the England squad, he has the opportunity to take May and June to get his body and head in the best possible place for Ten Hag’s arrival.
5) End Harry Maguire’s season as well
Much of the above also applies to United’s skipper, too.
Rangnick says Maguire is battling to play again this season owing to a knee injury, but it is a pointless fight. His form has been so poor lately that the last thing he or United need is for the defender to return prematurely and make things even worse.
Maguire is under a mega-f***-tonne of pressure and is getting very little sympathy from United fans. They were aghast at the defender being jeered on England duty, forgetting that his substitution in the Champions League was cheered by many inside Old Trafford.
Maguire is not one to back down or walk away, but he needs to pick his battles. With Gareth Southgate almost certain to call him up for England’s end-of-season fixtures, Maguire could use a holiday now to clear his head and get his knee right.
Maybe swerve Greece, though, big man…
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