Manchester United have had a squad boost ahead of the new season
Manchester United are now one down on three XIs, with Axel Tuanzebe about to embark on a third loan with Aston Villa.
United’s squad size now stands at 32 players, pending Raphael Varane’s medical, and Phil Jones has somehow risen to fifth-choice centre-back after an 18-month absence.
Jones was still not named on the bench against Everton on Saturday and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has already advised he gets minutes with the Under-23s.
Eric Bailly, another centre-back, elected to miss pre-season and participate at the Olympics. Fred missed the Perth leg of United’s last pre-season tour to get married and was not involved in any of their four August matches.
Solskjaer has suggested Varane, whose signing should be confirmed by, or on, Wednesday, will be on the bench against Leeds United. Everton was a successful, albeit misleading, dress rehearsal for livelier Leeds with an XI that could feasibly line up again on Saturday.
United already have a surfeit of squad issues. Bailly and Amad not under consideration, Jones and Andreas Pereira part of the fat in a bloated squad, Alex Telles on crutches, Marcus Rashford nursing his shoulder, Dean Henderson drained from Covid-19, Jesse Lingard isolating, Anthony Elanga injured and Edinson Cavani and Jadon Sancho only just back from illogically long breaks.
It also spares Solskjaer from some unenviable discussions before the competitive campaign starts. His laudable man-management is aided by the permanent expansion of benches to nine substitutes, confirmed in the Premier League handbook for 2021-22.
The Premier League only increased matchday squad sizes to 18 players in 2008-09 and the inordinate wait for 20-man squads ended through the pandemic. Even after the restart last June, the Premier League reduced benches back to seven substitutes at the start of 2020-21, a rule that was readjusted in December.
They will have to make more room in the brick hut dugouts at Old Trafford. United’s substitutes were sat in the south stand again at the weekend but the turnstiles will reopen for the Leeds match, when a capacity crowd is expected.
United have the luxury of selecting up to 12 substitutes in the Champions League, with Uefa permitting 23-man matchday squads in line with international tournaments.
Assuming Sancho, Varane and Cavani are all available for Leeds, United’s teamsheet could list a XI of De Gea, Wan-Bissaka, Lindelof, Maguire, Shaw, Matic, Van de Beek, Fernandes, Greenwood, James, and Martial, with Heaton, Dalot, Varane, McTominay, Fred, Pogba, Sancho, Mata, and Cavani the substitutes. Replace Heaton and James with Henderson and Rashford and that is United’s 20 best.
The excess is easily manageable. Jones, Pereira and Lingard have seats reserved in the departures’ lounge, Elanga and Amad are callow, Telles’s shelf life is unlikely to extend beyond this season and Heaton is a content third-choice. United owe Bailly nothing and it was apparent he would start the season as fourth-choice centre half – at best – when he signed his contract in April.
Any more incomings over the next three weeks largely hinge on outgoings, so United are not about to let their squad swell to obese proportions. Solskjaer settled on a streamlined squad of 23 players for 61 matches last season and ran certain players into the ground, so is content with a large squad.
“We need a big squad,” he said. “The start is important, the whole season is important, but you need to arrive in April and May fresh and with enough options. Some [players] might go on loan until Christmas, some might go for a season but I don’t want to be too light in any position.
“We need to arrive in April and May with players fresh. We need players with X-factor who can make a difference.
“Bruno, last year for example, maybe I overplayed him but it was because he was so important for us. Adding these extra players – Jesse coming back, Jadon coming in, Anthony being fit again – it gives us a lot more to work with.”
Solskjaer is giving serious consideration to retaining Lingard despite his sellable status, not that a suitable offer has been made yet. The four players who appeared in pre-season and have since gone have only done so on loan.