Manchester United are more than halfway through their pre-season campaign but still there is more interest in who isn’t playing than who is.
As a second-string side beat Brentford in the unseasonal July rain, Bruno Fernandes watched on from the Old Trafford stands, but of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s strongest XI you would say eight players are still yet to return to Carrington and only Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Mason Greenwood have played in pre-season.
Neither David de Gea or Dean Henderson have played yet, Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw, Fred, Paul Pogba, Jadon Sancho and Edinson Cavani aren’t back in pre-season training, while Raphael Varane is yet to jet into Manchester to finalise his move from Real Madrid.
Anthony Elanga and Andreas Pereira put their name in lights against the Bees but neither are likely to face Leeds United on August 14. There could be some surprise starters on the opening day of the season, however, due to the staggered nature of pre-season for so many players and the fact that facing Marcelo Bielsa’s side isn’t something you’d recommend to anyone still working their way towards match fitness.
Solskjaer will have to balance quality against fitness levels for that unique test, but the more players fully up to speed the better.
So Diogo Dalot’s 45-minute run-out against Brentford could be good news for him, although he will rue his failure to intercept a routine pass down the line that led Bryan Mbeumo to equalise.
The 22-year-old looked surplus to requirements not so long ago but his form for AC Milan earned him a European Championship call-up and he played for Portugal in the tournament. He needs to find those performance levels for United now, rather than the error that cost him last night. It was those mistakes that led to him being sidelined by Solskjaer at the end of the 2019/20 season.
The fact he came on for Brandon Williams was a reminder of his versatility - he split his time between right-back and left-back for Milan last season - and fitness issues might hand him an unexpected chance at the start of the season.
Alex Telles is already out until September, while Shaw played through broken ribs in Euro 2020. Dalot will probably start at left-back against Preston on Saturday and he will know a good performance will put him firmly on the radar to feature in the early weeks of the season. His immediate United future could rest on how he gets on against the Championship side.
Another player likely to start at Deepdale is Donny van de Beek. He came on for the final 15 minutes last night and is ahead of Fernandes and Pogba in pre-season. The former will likely feature on Saturday but Pogba’s absence remains slightly surprising, while his future is once again the subject of tortured discourse.
Solskjaer again stuck with the 4-2-3-1 against Brentford, but at some point in pre-season you would expect to see the 4-3-3 he is toying with unleashing this season. Even if that Leeds game is too soon for that, Van de Beek and Nemanja Matic are still the only senior midfielders to have played so far this summer.
Scott McTominay’s absence against QPR and Brentford suggests he is carrying some kind of injury and while Fernandes will probably play on Saturday, Pogba and Fred aren’t likely to be getting an outing until the final pre-season friendly of the summer against Everton.
With midfield such a key area against Leeds Solskjaer will want some dynamism in there and that could play into Van de Beek’s hands. The Holland international missed the Euros with a groin injury but he’s reported back to Carrington fit and fresh and could yet make an impact at the start of the season.
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