Manchester United showed with victory over Liverpool in the FA Cup that they have the all-important depth needed to seriously compete on multiple fronts in this most congested of seasons when games are coming ticker and faster than ever before.
United have played 16 times in four different competitions since the beginning of December and will take that number up to an even more eye watering 18 by the end of January, with two more games still to play in the final week of the month.
Things didn’t go to plan in the Champions League back in early December, while they were knocked out of the Carabao Cup at the semi-final stage at the start of January. But their Premier League form has been close to flawless over the last six weeks, while they are progressing well in the FA Cup and in Liverpool have knocked out one of the biggest threats.
February won’t be a let up either, with eight more games in three competitions scheduled over a period of 27 days, an average of one every three of four days for a third straight month.
United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is determined to win a trophy this season so that the club is not starved of silverware for a fourth consecutive year.
But being able to balance and carefully manage players so as not to suffer the same kind of burnout as United did in the final stages of 2019/20 is going to be so important. It was therefore refreshing to see a slightly rotated line-up still do the business against Liverpool.
Conversely, Liverpool themselves have struggled with depth. Losing both of their first choice centre-backs simultaneously to long-term injuries was a stroke of bad luck, but selling a centre-back in summer without a replacement and leaving a known injury prone player as the only senior back-up seems like poor planning as much as anything else. The Reds have also been bitten by failing to recruit back-up attacking players of sufficient quality to relieve some of the burden on their starters.
Victor Lindelof was back in the United side on Sunday, having recently shared starts with Eric Bailly. Solskjaer also has Axel Tuanzebe at his disposal at the back, a player well liked by the manager and with that stunning Champions League performance against Paris Saint-Germain on his record.
In midfield, Solskjaer resisted the temptation to put Scott McTominay and Fred together to stifle Liverpool. Instead, he left Fred out, moved Paul Pogba deeper and brought in Donny van de Beek, who United fans have still yet to see anything like the best of since his arrival.
Pogba has previously been criticised when playing deeper and it had seemed like his more attacking positioning in recent weeks was Solskjaer’s attempt to hide his weakness and limit the level of defensive responsibility placed on him. But the Frenchman ran the game and outperformed Thiago – even though Liverpool fans clinging to denial claimed the opposite.
It also meant Bruno Fernandes could be left out at the beginning. He was eventually brought on to make the decisive impact, but those first 66 minutes of rest on the bench will have been invaluable in keeping him as fresh as possible – having already done more than any other player in English football over the course of the last 12 months.
Further forward, Anthony Martial was rested from the start and only played the final few minutes. The short-term signing of Edinson Cavani was pilloried in October – and perhaps it could at least have sealed a few months earlier – but appears to have been a short-term masterstroke. Mason Greenwood started and scored, but only played 66 minutes, while Marcus Rashford is in top form.
United additionally had Nemanja Matic, Juan Mata, Daniel James and Alex Telles on the bench to add depth and other options all over the pitch. The latter’s presence appears to have also brought the best out of Luke Shaw, who has been playing arguably his best football since joining United since recovering from his latest injury setback in the last few weeks.
Then there is Amad Diallo, a player Solskjaer has hinted might be closer to making his debut than anyone reasonably expected. Presumably, his impact in training already has been substantial.
United still have a long way to go if they are to halt a Premier League title drought at eight years, but it definitely isn’t out of the question on the basis of current form. The FA Cup is in closer reach because it now only requires four wins to lift the trophy, while the Europa League will also resume next month, adding international travel into the equation.
Solskjaer will need all of his squad if United are to realise their potential in the second half of the season. But the fact that he has depth to call on at all is already so crucial.