Prioritise league or Europe? Risk Rashford or trust Diallo? Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Granada dilemmas
United face Granada in the Europa League quarter finals this week and their Norwegian manager has some difficult decisions to make. Solskjaer has yet to win a trophy in charge of the club, but would finishing second in the Premier League be a greater symbol of progress? He might have no choice but to rotate key players like Marcus Rashford.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer walks off at the end of the Premier League match between Manchester United and West Ham United at Old Trafford on March 14, 2021 in Manchester, United Kingdom.
The Europa League trophy has been used as a symbol of progress by Manchester United before. Back in 2017, Jose Mourinho used the run to the competition’s final, and subsequent victory over Ajax in Stockholm, as evidence for the cultivation of a winning mentality developing at Old Trafford under his stewardship.
Once again, United are targeting Europa League success to underline their development as a side. But while Mourinho used continental glory to offset a disappointing Premier League campaign, which saw the Reds finish in sixth, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer might have to start prioritising between the two competitions.
United are on course to finish as the best of the rest in the Premier League this season in what would be their joint-best finish since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement eight years ago. Solskjaer’s side were unable to sustain their title challenge into the new year, but they have kept closer to Manchester City than anyone else.
Despite this, some argue the Norwegian needs some tangible success in the form of silverware to prove he is taking Manchester United in the right direction. Solskjaer has been in charge at Old Trafford for nearly two-and-a-half seasons now and he has yet to get his hands on a trophy. This isn’t a record befitting of a United manager.
With an injury to Anthony Martial potentially sidelining the Frenchman for the rest of the season, Solskjaer might face some difficult decisions over the coming weeks as the fixtures come thick and fast. The Thursday-Sunday routine will push Manchester United’s depth to the limits.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (L) and Marcus Rashford (R)
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How Solskjaer uses Marcus Rashford between now and the end of the season will reveal a lot about where the Norwegian’s priorities lie. The forward has been included in the squad for Thursday’s Europa League quarter final first leg against Granada, but is not a “90-minute man,” as Solskjaer put it. Essentially, Rashford is playing with an injury.
Rashford has done this before under Solskjaer and it didn’t end well as the 23-year-old continued playing with a back injury until he was sidelined for two months midway through last season. It was only through the Covid-19 lockdown that Rashford was able to rest and recuperate.
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With the Euros on the horizon, Solskjaer is also threatening England’s summer success by fielding a half-fit Rashford so often. Worse than this, the 23-year-old’s future is being compromised by a manager seemingly oblivious to the dangers of burnout for a player still in the early years of his career. Rashford could be doing real and lasting damage to himself.
United have important fixtures against Granada in the Europa League on Thursday and Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League on Sunday and the number of minutes Rashford is given in both will measure where Solskjaer is placing the greater emphasis for the final phase of the season.
Amad Diallo of Manchester United
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Solskjaer has options to rotate. Amad Diallo found the net in United’s Europa League last 16 win over AC Milan and could be handed a starting spot on Thursday night. The 18-year-old has made a positive start to life at Old Trafford and could prove the club needn’t spend big on Jadon Sancho to address their right wing deficiency with another good performance.
A second place finish in the Premier League this season might provide a view of Manchester United’s progress under Solskjaer through a wider scope, but what does that progress count for when they continue to falter when it matters most? United made it to three semi finals last season, but no further. This season, they have made it to one semi final and one quarter final, and again no further.
Working out whether United have truly progressed as they should have under Solskjaer is somewhat difficult such are the contradictions around his tenure, but symbolic success is within touching distance, whether that’s through winning the Europa League or finishing second in the Premier League. Solskjaer might have to determine which would validate him more.