It’s clear for all to see that Manchester United are on something of a high at the moment. In fact, we might go as far as to say that the Red Devils are the form team in European club football. It was not just the EFL Cup Final win last weekend, or even the victory over Barcelona a few days beforehand, there has been a sense of trajectory about United ever since the World Cup wrapped up.
It is, however, a truism of football that success means more games, and more games mean tired legs. United played 19 competitive games from the time club football resumed post-World Cup (late December) up until the EFL Cup Final on 26th March. It was a game played every three and a half days on average. This could take a toll later down the line, especially given United’s overreliance on certain players.
United backed by bookies for Europa League
It is arguably the Europa League, where United have been installed as the betting favourites for the title after the win over Barcelona, that will be most interesting to see how Erik Ten Hag shuffles his pack. It’s far from being a secondary tournament, and there are big names that can be involved in glamour ties, including Juventus, Roma, Bayer Leverkusen, and, of course, Arsenal.
United have been drawn against Real Betis in the Last 16, and it arguably represents the worst of all outcomes for Ten Hag. Yes, a trip to Seville is preferable to a long flight to Istanbul to face Fenerbahce, which was a possibility, but Betis are exactly the type of team that will give United problems, particularly if the Red Devils’ legs are weary. Currently 5th in La Liga, Betis play with a sense of gusto that could really hurt United over two legs.
There are some bright spots for United, including the fact that the talismanic Nabil Fekir has been ruled out for the season. But Betis represent just one stop on United’s Europa League journey. Should they get past the Spaniards, even tougher tests could await.
As mentioned, it will be interesting to see how Erik Ten Hag approaches Betis, and any subsequent games in the competition. A handful of United players, including Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford, have had a lot of game-time already this season. Fernandes, for instance, has almost reached 40 games for United this season, and we are only just past the halfway point. He does seem indefatigable at times, but he is also human.
Rashford’s form has been key
Rashford, perhaps most of all, should be wrapped up in cotton wool. United’s supreme form since the World Cup has been inextricably linked to the form of the 25-year-old. Much has been made about the role of Erik Ten Hag in Rashford’s footballing renaissance, but it’s worth remembering that Rashford had a lot of injury problems over the last few years. Some of that was caused by accumulated fatigue. He, like Fernandes, is about to surpass 40 games this season. An injury – a more likely event when players have had too much game time – or a dip in form could be calamitous for United’s season.
None of this is meant to pour cold water over a team that is, as we have said, arguably the in-form club side in football at the moment. Moreover, there are several players at United – Jadon Sancho, Antony, Marcel Sabitzer – whom you could see stepping up to become more influential, perhaps grabbing the reins from Rashford and Fernandes. But United could end up playing well over 60 games this season, one that was interrupted by a World Cup (United sent 14 players to Qatar). If Ten Hag has them playing at the same level in April and May as he did in January and February, he will be considered a miracle worker indeed.