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Manchester United

Man Utd's big positional battles: From Ronaldo vs Martial to Maguire against Varane

12:57 BST 03/08/2022
Anthony Martial Cristiano Ronaldo Man Utd battles GFX
Erik ten Hag has plenty of massive selection calls to make ahead of the Premier League's big kick-off

Following the laid-back and tactically naive approach of Ole Solskjaer, and the lack of player buy-in that soured Ralf Rangnick’s time, Manchester United are now under the stewardship of an old school authoritarian in Erik ten Hag. Players eat together, there is a strict dress code, and the team is treasured over the individual.

On the pitch, Erik ten Hag has wasted no time in pre-season implementing the philosophy that made his Ajax team a favourite of the neutrals. A philosophy that treasures possession, vertical passing, and counter pressing.

It will, of course, take time for Ten Hag to assemble a squad where every player is comfortable with the demands of his system, but a look at pre-season shows that everybody will be given a chance to shine, and also that some players appear nailed on to start.

David de Gea won’t be troubled by Tom Heaton, Diogo Dalot has higher technical ability than Aaron Wan-Bissaka, and Jadon Sancho has cemented his position in the team with dazzling displays against Liverpool, Crystal Palace and Aston Villa, scoring three goals in the process.

Lisandro Martinez hasn’t been bought to sit on the bench but, apart from that, places are up for grabs all over the pitch.

With the start of the Premier League only a matter of days away, GOAL takes a look at the most competitive positional battles at United ahead of the new season...

  • Split image of Luke Shaw and Tyrell Malacia

    Luke Shaw vs Tyrell Malacia

    The case for Shaw:

    Luke Shaw’s career since joining Man Utd as a teenager has been one of ups and downs, from a promising start under Louis Van Gaal, to a horrific leg break and falling out of favour under Jose Mourinho, to flourishing under Solskjaer before a brilliant Euro 2020, and then a dramatic loss of form in what was the club’s worst ever Premier League season.

    Now, the 27-year-old is faced with the task of impressing the new gaffer and staying on top of the fresh-faced competition – something which we’ve seen him do previously, when Alex Telles was brought to the club ahead of the 2020-21 season. Shaw went on to create the second-most chances for a defender in the Premier League.

    We know that Shaw can still produce moments of quality in the opposition's final third, as underlined by his assist for Sancho in their pre-season clash with Villa. Where Shaw can and perhaps needs to improve is his positional play when defending, covering the right areas and staying with his man. His overall game could do with some fine-tuning and consistency, which could now come under Ten Hag, who will be dishing out clear and precise instructions.

    The case for Malacia:

    The new kid on the block, bringing with him a high-energy approach and an eagerness which is crucial to the way Ten Hag likes to use his full-backs. In the five appearances he has made for the club to date, Tyrell Malacia has already demonstrated the quality that made him a fan favourite at Feyenoord, as well as his full international debut for the Netherlands.

    Similarly to Shaw, Malacia appears to be most comfortable in the opposition's final third; his contribution to Anthony Martial’s goal against Crystal Palace proved that. He has great technical ability, and a fine passing range, but is also not afraid of committing fully to a tackle. However, his defensive awareness could do with some polishing; the opposition wingers often found space on Malacia’s side in his pre-season outings.

    GOAL verdict:

    The two left-backs are not a world apart in terms of what they bring to the table; they have similar strengths and weaknesses. Shaw’s age and experience of English football may initially give him the edge in league games, but Malacia could give Ten Hag something to think about should he impress on Thursday nights in the Europa League or domestic cup games.

  • Harry Maguire Raphael Varane Man Utd GFX

    Harry Maguire vs Raphael Varane

    The case for Maguire:

    Despite Maguire’s rocky form over the last 12 months for club and country, it is evident that he has the backing of the new manager, who has started him in four of the six pre-season fixtures, playing him as the right centre-back in preparation to partner up with Lisandro Martinez who will fill the left hand side berth Maguire has played in since joining from Leicester.

    Maguire still maintains some great attributes to be a top defender, such as his physical presence, his aerial prowess, and ability to find progressive passes. However, his reading of the game and his decision-making under defensive pressure still have much room for improvement.

    His lack of pace can be an issue in a high defensive line but this can be counterbalanced with better positioning, and perfecting when and where to get touch-tight to opponents, much like Daley Blind at Ajax.

    The case for Varane:

    On an individual basis, Varane was good last season, there were moments where you could see exactly why he has four Champions League titles to his name, but then there were also plenty of moments where he looked like just another part of the dysfunctional side who were Europa League-bound, such as his horrible display in the 4-0 thrashing defeat on the hands of Brighton. 

    But beyond some poor performances, his major problem since joining the Red Devils has been his injury record, missing 17 games through injury last season. 

    Should he be able to stay fit, he could become a very valuable asset for Ten Hag, given his abundance of pace for a centre-back, his stature and his composure on the ball. 

    GOAL verdict:

    Both have hurdles to overcome and areas to improve, perhaps Maguire more than Varane. But, ultimately, the Englishman's greater availability for games, in comparison to the Frenchman’s fragile injury record, could prove to be decisive. 

  • Donny van de Beek Scott McTominay Man Utd GFX

    Scott McTominay vs Donny van de Beek

    The case for Van De Beek:

    Donny Van De Beek’s signing still looks like a terrible bit of planning. He came into Solskjaer’s team with no specific role set aside for him, and a playing style which didn’t suit him. Now, with his former manager Ten Hag having taken over, fans hoped to see the 25-year-old thrive in pre-season, but that hasn’t been the case so far.

    While he did put the ball on a plate for Rashford’s goal against Palace, in a move which was very Ajax-esque, he has been slightly underwhelming in his six pre-season fixtures. He is clearly very gifted, technically, but his mobility remains a major issue; he often looks lethargic and lacking in pace.

    Perhaps he is one who will begin to improve as and when Man Utd become a better possession-based side.

    The case for McTominay:

    The Scot seems to always have the backing of his managers, despite all the critics, but the 25-year-old now enters a crucial period of his career, under a manager who makes very precise demands of his midfielders.

    McTominay is the complete polar opposite of Van de Beek. He offers intensity and physicality but he needs to improve a lot on the ball, particularly with his range of passing. Still, McTominay started four of the six pre-season games, which suggests he also has Ten Hag’s backing. For now, at least...

    GOAL verdict:

    If you could take the best attributes from Van de Beek, and the best attributes from McTominay, and mould them into one player, you’d have a brilliant midfielder on your hands. Unfortunately for Ten Hag, he isn’t allowed that kind of experimentation with his players, so we think McTominay will start the season ahead of Van de Beek simply because of his superior dynamism and defensive work.

  • Bruno Fernandes Christian Eriksen Man Utd GFX

    Bruno Fernandes vs Christian Eriksen

    The case for Fernandes:

    Bruno Fernandes has been United's most successful acquisition in the post Sir Alex Ferguson era, his arrival proving the catalyst for much of Solskjaer’s success at the club, helping the side achieve back-to-back top-four finishes with his 44 goal contributions in 51 league games throughout the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons.

    However, his frantic nature, which can be effective in transitional situations, proved to be frustrating last season and regularly led to a loss of possession. Although giving the ball away isn’t something which Ten Hag takes lightly, he clearly still views Fernandes as a key part of the team, starting him in five of United’s six pre-season games.

    Previously, Fernandes gave the impression that he attempts too much and sets out every pass to be the one leading to a goal. He certainly has the quality to be a major creative outlet in Ten Hag’s system, but he can also benefit from some clearer objectives and a more structured role in the side, which he now looks to be getting.

    The case for Eriksen:

    Christian Eriksen, on the other hand, is very efficient at ball retention, and is easily the tidier player of the two, which may be exactly why he was wanted by Ten Hag. Within five minutes of his debut for the club against Atletico Madrid, he demonstrated his class with two long-ball pings, one of which almost resulted in a goal.

    The following day, he made his first start and immediately stood out in midfield, providing Man Utd with a great outlet to shift the ball from defence into attack and playing a part in their only goal of the game.

    GOAL verdict:

    Both of these individuals are a great choice to have in midfield. Eriksen’s game is arguably more well-rounded but, on the flipside, Fernandes can provide a great deal of pressing intensity, as well as the occasional high-risk, high-reward pattern of play. Nonetheless, it may not come down to one or the other. If the right balance can be found, most likely in the form of a deeper-lying midfielder, Eriksen and Fernandes could play side by side against defensive opponents.

  • Marcus Rashford Anthony Elanga Man Utd GFX

    Marcus Rashford vs Anthony Elanga

    The case for Rashford:

    When Rashford initially burst onto the scene, he had a sense of fearlessness about him. He was direct and always backed himself to take a man on. However, he looked a mere shadow of himself last season. He painted the image of a frustrated man, who felt the need to make something happen whenever he received the ball and, more often than not, he ended up with his head in his hands after failing to produce.

    We know the threat Rashford possesses, with his menacing pace, his stinging shots and clever tricks. His challenge now is to make those attributes work in Ten Hag’s system, not only to firmly establish himself into Man Utd’s team, but also to get his spot back in the England squad ahead of the 2022 World Cup.

    The case for Elanga:

    Anthony Elanga proved to be one of the few beneficiaries of Man Utd's poor 2021-22 season. Under Rangnick, the 20-year-old established himself in the first team, chipping in with 13 goal contributions. His work-rate and eagerness on the pitch set him apart and even earned him his very own ‘Rhythm is a dancer’ chant.

    The 20-year-old has certainly proved that he can be a very functional player in the squad, someone who will closely follow instruction and is comfortable playing on both wings. But the only concern with Elanga is how high his ceiling can really be. He has rarely shown a great deal of skill to beat a man or trouble a keeper from distance in the way great wingers do.

    GOAL verdict:

    If Rashford continues his renaissance, he stands a great chance of securing the left-wing spot in Ten Hag’s team. However, Elanga will still have the chance to impress in cup competitions and improve his chances of breaking into the starting XI further down the line.

  • Cristiano Ronaldo Anthony Martial Man Utd GFX

    Cristiano Ronaldo vs Anthony Martial

    The case for Ronaldo:

    Last season, despite the last-minute winners and rousing celebrations, fans were at times critical of Ronaldo’s negative body language, and were left pondering his influence on the dressing room.

    So, what about now? We already knew that Ronaldo wants to join a Champions League club before the close of the transfer window but in his one and only pre-season appearance, against Rayo Vallecano, he seemed to be dismissive of Ten Hag’s instructions.

    He then left the stadium before the full-time whistle was blown, having been subbed off at half-time, leaving his new boss furious.

    All good news for the other contender to lead the attack...

    The case for Martial:

    When Martial joined Sevilla on loan in January, it seemed that the Frenchman had donned a United jersey for the very last time, with the Spanish club expressing a willingness to make the move permanent if all went well. However, Martial is back in Manchester after only one goal and one assist in 12 appearances in Spain.

    What's more, it appears that Martial is viewing the change in management as a chance to revitalise his United career. In his five pre-season fixtures, he looked like a man on a mission: he pressed well, he was lively in attack and grabbed himself three goals, against Liverpool, Crystal Palace and Melbourne Victory.

    Martial is a player who arrived at Old Trafford with a Ballon d’Or clause in his contract, and while he may never reach that level, if Ten Hag can unlock Martial's still obvious potential, it will be like signing a brand new and relatively battle hardened No.9.

    GOAL verdict:

    Ronaldo, if he stays, cannot be overlooked. The amount of goals he scores, along with the type of money he is on, means he has to start. But, not necessarily every game – remember, Solskjaer, Michael Carrick and Rangnick all dropped him at one time or another. And Ten Hag’s style of football means it might make sense for him to be benched in those games where a tough possession battle is expected. That’s where Martial can come in, and be a tireless striker who is prepared to hassle the opposition defenders all game long, and make a case to be the team's first-choice striker.