Erik ten Hag has demonstrated his devotion to his Manchester United teammates during the last four games. Four straight wins have resulted in just one team change, with £85 million winger Antony replacing Anthony Elanga on Sunday.
Aside from that, Ten Hag was forced to stick with the players who are producing, which meant filling in for the most expensive defender in history, the highest-paid player in the Premier League, and a defensive midfielder purchased for £60 million with five Champions League titles to his record.
Ten Hag’s message has been clear: play well and you will keep your spot on the team, and it’s difficult to argue against such a hierarchical organization.
Those who have had to wait and kick their feet during that run of victories will have a chance this week. United kick up their Europa League campaign against Real Sociedad tomorrow at Old Trafford, and Ten Hag is expected to make changes in what appears to be a pretty regular group.
United’s squad depth allows them to field two wholly different XIs in Europe and the Premier League, and those two teams may evolve slightly over the next month.
However, some major names will be on the team on Thursday this week. Many of them will see it as an opportunity to compel Ten Hag to make changes when United visits Crystal Palace in the Premier League on Sunday.
For some, this will be easier said than done. Harry Maguire is expected to start versus Sociedad, but the club captain and £80 million center-back will have to battle Raphael Varane or Lisandro Martinez right now.
Given the caliber of opposition in United’s Europa League group (they also face Omonia Nicosia and Sheriff Tiraspol), chances for a central defender to stand out are likely to be limited. It would be surprising if the Premier League’s first-choice back four did not remain in place for the foreseeable future.
Change is undoubtedly on the way in midfield, and it’s surprising Casemiro has waited this long to make his debut for Manchester United. With Scott McTominay succeeding in a holding midfield role, he’s had to settle with cameos against Southampton, Leicester City, and Arsenal.
Ten Hag has stated that the 30-year-old will need time to adjust, but he expects to be on that team sooner rather than later, and a great performance against the most capable opponents in this group will help his cause.
United’s midfield is undoubtedly fascinating, and Fred came on ahead of his Brazil international partner against Arsenal on Sunday. He can expect to return to the field on Thursday and restore his connection with Casemiro.
It’s uncertain how both would fit into the first-choice midfield, especially given Christian Eriksen’s form, but Fred knows that excellent performances in this competition might bring him back in the picture.
Cristiano Ronaldo entered the summer with no intention of playing in the Europa League but suddenly finds himself in a position where he may require Europe’s second-tier competition. He’s had to settle for four consecutive Premier League substitute appearances, and while he performed admirably against Arsenal, he still faces a battle to restore his starting spot as a center forward.
Marcus Rashford is regaining form under Ten Hag, while Anthony Martial is still awaiting a physical test. Ronaldo is expected to start against Real Sociedad, and the 37-year-old is seasoned enough to understand that every minute counts all of a sudden. He needs to show that he is capable of performing what Ten Hag expects from a striker.
On Thursday, Ten Hag will be able to deploy a strong team. It’s one that could change and evolve as the group stages proceed, with two or three of those involved this week hoping it’ll be their final start in this competition for a time.