Jose Mourinho’s first game in charge of Manchester United is on Saturday. Just a blink of an eye after Euro 2016’s culmination, the pre-season will get up and running as the Red Devils travel to the DW Stadium to take on Championship side Wigan Athletic.
But what can fans—of whom “around 7,500” are expected to travel, per Samuel Luckhurst of Manchester Evening News—expect to see?
When the fixture was announced, Mourinho said, per the club’swebsite:
The first game against Wigan is very important as I am going to have some players I don’t know very well who I am bringing into the first team. I don’t know them well but I just trust Nicky Butt [Head of Academy] and John Murtough [Head of Football Development] and the youth structure’s judgement.
Obviously I am going to work closely with them and I’m going to have to trust them when they say we have a few players who, in a couple of years, can be first-team players. It’s important to know them and give them the opportunity to work.
That sentiment would seem to suggest that plenty of youngsters will see action against Wigan. Which makes sense, given those first-team players who featured in this summer’s international tournaments will need some time off before they return to United duties.
There is a staggered return in the offing based on how much time their international teams spent in the tournament. Luckhurst reported that Anthony Martial, Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger “might not be available for any of United’s pre-season fixtures until August,” as “United internationals are usually granted a minimum three-week break before they report back.”
He also wrote, “Mourinho has already confirmed England trio Wayne Rooney, Chris Smalling and Marcus Rashford will travel to China for the two-game pre-season tour but will not play either against Borussia Dortmund or Manchester City,” and that Zlatan Ibrahimovic will either take his United bow in China or Sweden. United face Galatasaray in Gothenburg on July 30.
So there are plenty of absentees, and that means a chance at some first-team football for players like Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Axel Tuanzebe and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson.
In truth, though, there are plenty of senior players already back in pre-season training, and the youngsters, for the most part, might find their time on the pitch comes off the bench rather than from a first-team start.
Goalkeeper is an exception to this rule. Sam Johnstone seems a fairly certain starter in the absence of David De Gea and Sergio Romero unless Mourinho bypasses the 23-year old in favour of 20-year old Joel Pereira.
Centre-back will be an intriguing decision. Presumably, there will be a spot for new signing Eric Bailly, whom fans will be keen to see in action.
Were Louis van Gaal still in charge, he would surely line up alongside Daley Blind, but Mourinho will be much less likely to consider the Dutchman for a centre-back role. Phil Jones or even one of the youth team players seems a much more likely option. If Mourinho does select Blind at centre-back, that would perhaps offer a hint at surprises to come.
Antonio Valencia is in pre-season training, and Guillermo Varela has been training with the youth team, per Sky Sports. So presumably the Ecuadorian will start at right-back—though it is hard to see how he fits there in a top side in the long run. Ecuador finished their Copa America campaign on June 17, though, so he has had a significant break and may well play here.
Things are much more promising at left-back, where Luke Shaw is presumably going to make his long-awaited return. It will be a delight to see him back in a red shirt after the horrendous leg break he suffered against PSV Eindhoven in September 2015.
Once the season gets up and running, Mourinho will have some big decisions to make with his midfield. That won’t be the case on Saturday, though, given Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick are, as Luckhurst writes, “the only senior central midfielders available.”
If Mourinho wants to do some experimentation, it might be that Fosu-Mensah gets a run at some point during the game. That would likely be as as a substitute, though.
One thing seems certain with most of United’s midfielders still on holiday: The new manager will most likely opt for a 4-2-3-1 rather than a 4-3-3.
That means there are four spots for attackers to fight for.
With Rooney, Rashford, Martial and Ibrahimovic still away, there is a chance for some of those likely to play a more fringe role in United’s season to impress. Of course, fans will also be hoping to get the first sight of Henrikh Mkhitaryan in action for his new club, but aside from the Armenian, it is the squad players who will be on show.
Juan Mata might even get a start, though the chance of a long-term future for the man Mourinho sold to United after deeming surplus to requirement at Chelsea seems a long shot. Jesse Lingard could feature, though the chance of him playing at No. 10 as he did at the tail end of Van Gaal’s United tenure seems remote.
James Wilson, a player largely forgotten in the wake of Rashford’s remarkable rise to prominence, will presumably lead the line. It would make sense to play Mata behind him, given that he is capable of providing the kind of through ball Wilson’s pace can exploit—regardless of what Mourinho may think of the Spain international.
There is also the possibility that Adnan Januzaj could get some time at No. 10, but as with so many of United’s squad, Mourinho is likely to have a very different take on where players should play than Van Gaal did.
Mkhitaryan will probably play on the right, but it would be an interesting wrinkle were he to play at No. 10. Mourinho used his debut United press conference to state his preference for specialists over multifunctional players, but Mkhitaryan is a multifunctional forward, having played left, right and centre for Borussia Dortmund.
If Mkhitaryan plays centrally with Lingard on the right, it would hint that the presumption that United’s new signing will play wide on the right is incorrect and spell challenging times ahead for Rooney—the season’s presumptive starter at No. 10—in particular. However, that seems a long shot for now.
On the left wing, Memphis Depay gets a chance to show Mourinho he is worthy of serious consideration for a place in the Portuguese’s small, focussed squad. There were signs of an understanding with Shaw in last season’s early going, and the Dutchman was one of those to suffer from Shaw’s absence.
His best performances by some distance came against teams much weaker than United, so perhaps the level of opposition will suit a confidence-boosting turn from the former Eredivisie star.
The team could look something like this:
By the end of the game, it will look very different, with some young players given a chance to impress. Whatever happens, though, United fans across the world will be delighted to have the chance to watch their team in action again, as the Mourinho era begins in earnest.
Source: Bleacher report