Marathon effort: Manchester United prepare to be pushed to limit as they could hit 65 games this season
Manchester United have already played 46 matches in all competitions this season, more than Brentford, Fulham, Aston Villa, Crystal Palace, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Leeds United, Everton, Nottingham Forest, Leicester City and Bournemouth will each face in the entire campaign.
It is the same number as Newcastle United, whom they take on at St James’ Park tomorrow for the first time since beating Eddie Howe’s side in the Carabao Cup final in February.
Whereas United could play as many as 19 more matches over a 63-day period, their rivals for a top-four berth – with Arsenal and Manchester City well clear of the chasing pack – have only the Premier League left to focus on.
Tottenham Hotspur have 10 games left to play – almost half as many as Erik ten Hag’s marathon men could potentially face – while Newcastle, who will go level on points with United if they win tomorrow, and Liverpool each have 12 remaining league fixtures.
Should United beat Brighton to reach the FA Cup final on June 3 and compete in the Europa League final in Budapest three days earlier, it will have meant a 65-game season spanning an eye-watering 302 days.
Only once would they have played more matches in a single campaign – 2008-09, when they navigated 66 fixtures.
How are they coping?
United had 15 representatives at the World Cup in Qatar and there were signs in the three weeks after the Carabao Cup final leading up to the latest international break of the cumulative impact of a hectic season for club and country starting to take its toll.
Luke Shaw blamed United’s 7-0 humiliation at Liverpool on complacency after a first trophy success for six years but, against West Ham United and Fulham in the FA Cup and the first half against Real Betis at Old Trafford in the Europa League, fatigue appeared an increasing factor.
United are fitter and more structured under Ten Hag than they have been at any point in the post-Alex Ferguson era and better able to maintain intense bursts in matches.
A full pre-season, which involved plentiful double sessions working on fitness, shape and patterns of play, provided an invaluable platform.
But Ten Hag has been drawing predominantly on the same pool of players and the workload has been pressing for some.
United’s de facto captain, Bruno Fernandes, has played more minutes (4,571) and games (53) for club and country than any other outfield player in Europe’s top five leagues this term. In fact, Fernandes, Lisandro Martinez, Marcus Rashford, Fred and Casemiro are in the top 25 for appearances made for club and country in the leading five leagues.
Do they have strength in depth?
Ten Hag’s most immediate concern is the Casemiro-sized hole in his midfield.
United must navigate the league games against Newcastle, Brentford and Everton over the next eight days without their Brazilian linchpin because of suspension.
By the end of his third ban of the campaign, Casemiro will have missed eight of 16 domestic matches over an 11-week period.
On the upside, it should mean he is fresh for the run-in, but the stand-ins such as Scott McTominay – who scored four goals for Scotland during the international break – and Marcel Sabitzer must deliver in his absence, or it could prove costly.
It does not help that fellow midfielders Christian Eriksen and Donny van de Beek are both unavailable through injury – the Dane could be back at the end of this month – and United’s attack has been depleted by the loss of Argentine winger Alejandro Garnacho for weeks with an ankle problem.
Rashford pulled out of the England squad with a niggle and Ten Hag will hope his key attacker benefited from the respite ahead of a frantic next two months.
What about their forgotten man?
Anthony Martial has made just nine starts in all competitions in a season blighted by an array of injuries.
Ten Hag has deliberately not rushed the France striker back this time to ensure he stays fit after the international break.
If he can find form and fitness, the 27-year-old could be critical to United’s hopes.
Loan signing Wout Weghorst has led the line in Martial’s absence, but the Frenchman would offer the pace and goal threat the Dutchman lacks and could help to ease the burden on Rashford.
Martial aside, other players in the United squad, such as Jadon Sancho and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who were missing for large spells during the first half of the season, are now reintegrated into the side and could prove important.
Are their fixtures kind?
United have already played Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool home and away.
There are tricky trips to Newcastle, Tottenham, Brighton and West Ham to come and there will be pressure on the Brentford match at Old Trafford on Wednesday, given their 4-0 humbling at their place in August.
However, they have a kinder run-in than Liverpool and Newcastle – the latter facing three successive away matches following United’s visit tomorrow, plus leaders Arsenal still to come. United also have a similar one to Tottenham, even if the sheer volume of games in such a short time is the biggest headache. (© Telegraph Media Group Ltd, 2023)