The Premier League is weeks away from a return following the Covid-19 enforced interruption to the 2019/20 campaign. Although this stoppage will have a lasting negative impact on the sport, there will be one or two positives for individual clubs to take from it. Manchester United will be boosted by the return of Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford to aid their Champions League push, which will increase their chances of finishing in the top four. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer confirmed to the official club site that both players should be available to feature when the action resumes.
The pair are two of the most talented players in the current squad, but they will come into the final nine matches with slightly different aims. Rashford was excellent before his injury, with many believing that he carried the team prior to Bruno Fernandes’ arrival in January. The England international has contributed 14 goals and four assists, with a goal involvement every 104.6 minutes, underlining his improvement in the final third. To put this into context, he averaged a goal involvement every 146.6 minutes in the 2018/19 season. It will be five months since he last stepped on a football pitch when play resumes, therefore expectations need to be checked. That said, his availability will definitely increase the club’s chances of finishing in the top four.
The underlying numbers support that Rashford has been one of the leading forwards in the Premier League this season. According to Statsbomb (taken from fbref.com), he has a total expected goals (xG) of 13.6, which ranks third out of all players. Only Jamie Vardy and Mohamed Salah rank higher in this metric, both of whom have played a greater number of minutes in the league this season. In terms of xG per ninety minutes, the Manchester United forward averages 0.65. Only Sergio Aguero (0.85) and Gabriel Jesus (0.88) rank higher from players that have featured regularly.
The return of Rashford will add a greater goal threat to the Manchester United front line. In a team featuring Bruno Fernandes and Pogba, he could be even more devastating.
Meanwhile, Pogba will be looking to re-establish his reputation as one of the best players in Europe following a quiet 12 months, tarnished by injuries and speculation about his future. The current financial situation in the sport makes it unlikely that he will be moved on any time soon, therefore, at the age of 27, he needs to get back to his best at Manchester United. There should be hunger to play a starring role over the next nine matches.
This campaign, he has only featured in seven Premier League matches, with a contribution of two assists. These both came in the season opener against Chelsea. However, he also played a key role in the Boxing Day victory over Newcastle when he was introduced at half-time. It underlined what he can bring to the team, with three shots, two key passes, one dribble and five ball recoveries. Pogba can play a box-to-box midfield role to a high standard, contributing in both halves of the pitch. There are attitude concerns regarding the midfielder, but the talent is obvious and it is why the club continue persisting with the Frenchman.
The difficulty may be finding a formation that allows Solskjaer to get all of his attacking talent on to the pitch at the same time. Pogba poses the biggest issue, as he would like to play in an advanced midfield role with fewer defensive responsibilities. Bruno Fernandes played in a number ten role in the majority of his minutes for Manchester United. It will pose a challenge to get both thriving in the same team.
Before the break, Solskjaer lined up without natural wingers against Manchester City and Everton. During the derby win, they started with a three-man defence, but it is likely a 4-4-2 diamond is the better long term option. This is how they started against Everton.
Nemanja Matic’s resurgence as a holding midfielder gives Solskjaer the option to do this, with Pogba and Fred as the two box-to-box midfielders. Fernandes would then start in the more advanced role, but there would be flexibility for the midfielders to interchange. The return of Rashford could see him partnered with Anthony Martial in attack, with the pair capable of moving into wide positions when the situation allowed.
During his tenure, Solskjaer has shown a willingness to experiment with formation and personnel. He may have to do a little bit of that when the Premier League returns. Although, he will be wary of being too experimental with only nine matches left to play and a top four finish still in sight.