Manchester United’s Champions League campaign has been one of the finest of margins, to say the least.
A shock defeat at Wednesday’s opponents Young Boys on matchday one was a dreadful start, and at numerous occasions in their following two matches they appeared to be in trouble again.
They needed late winners from Cristiano Ronaldo at home to both Villarreal and Atalanta, coming back from 2-0 down at half-time against the Italians.
Ronaldo then got a last-gasp equaliser away to Atalanta to salvage a 2-2 draw. Had he not delivered the goods on that occasion, United would have gone to Villarreal on matchday five knowing they could be eliminated there and then.
As it was, they ultimately left Spain with a 2-0 win thanks to a couple of goals in the final 12 minutes, with Michael Carrick – who had taken up a caretaker manager position after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s dismissal – ensuring United finished top of the group.
Ralf Rangnick will be United’s third manager of the group stage when Young Boys visit, and he has the luxury of being able to rest certain players and give others a chance to impress.
So, who will be hoping for a rare opportunity?
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) December 7, 2021
It wasn’t perfect, but Henderson’s first season in the Man United first team last term was promising. David de Gea suffered a knee injury that allowed the academy product his first serious run in the side after previously impressing on loan at Sheffield United.
He featured 26 times for the Red Devils across all competitions, keeping as many clean sheets (12) as De Gea despite playing 10 matches fewer.
De Gea prevented fractionally more goals over the season (1.9 to 1.6), according to Opta’s expected goals on target (xGOT) data, although Henderson boasted a better save percentage (75.8 to 66.4).
This season, due to injury and illness – and De Gea’s improved form – Henderson has only managed a single appearance.
With rumours linking him with a loan move to Ajax in January, it’s certainly a good time to start getting minutes again, whether that’s to improve his standing at United or put himself in the shop window.
Donny Van de Beek
As with Henderson, Rangnick confirmed Van de Beek will start on Wednesday, which will make it five appearances since Solskjaer was sacked; up until that point, the former Ajax midfielder had played in just six games all season.
It’s been well publicised how Van de Beek’s career seemingly stalled after joining United, making only four Premier League starts in 2020-21, despite costing just over £40million, and falling out of favour at international level.
Solskjaer appeared unsure how best to utilise Van de Beek’s talents, but at the very least he looks set for a few more opportunities under Rangnick.
He’s one of several who have been linked with a move away from Old Trafford, but an eye-catching display against Young Boys might just provide Rangnick with proof Van de Beek can be a valuable option in midfield.
Everything was looking promising for Lingard at the start of the season. He’d returned from a remarkable loan spell at West Ham and Solskjaer was talking a good game about how much football the attacking midfielder was going to get.
Fast forward to the present day… Lingard has racked up just 87 minutes in the Premier League, with those coming across eight brief substitute appearances.
This has hardly been ideal given United apparently rejected bids of around £25m for Lingard in pre-season because Solskjaer wanted him for the first team; additionally, the England man’s contract expires at the end of the season, so if they cannot convince him that he’ll be playing, the club looks certain to lose a valuable asset for free.
Last season reminded everyone Lingard is not lacking talent. Between his Hammers debut in February and the end of 2020-21, the 28-year-old scored nine times in the Premier League, a haul bettered by just five players.
Only one of those was a penalty, leaving him with a non-penalty expected goals (xG) outperformance of 4.7, the second-best record in that time. Of course, such form isn’t necessarily sustainable, but it speaks to how effective Lingard can be when he has the belief of his manager.
Rangnick would do well to recognise that.
It’s been a difficult season for Ivory Coast winger Amad. He was about to go on loan at the start of the season before an injury robbed him of that opportunity.
He returned to the pitch for United’s Under-23s at the end of October and has played two games for them, netting a couple of goals against Leeds United.
United are well-stocked in the wide positions, which provides another obstacle, but Amad has been on the bench twice in the past few weeks under Carrick – against Villarreal and Arsenal.
One would expect United to arrange another loan move for Amad in January, but before then he may just represent something of a wildcard option for the new manager.
Centre-back Mengi has been highly rated at United for a while and even spent the second half of last season on loan at Derby County.
It seemed likely he’d return to Pride Park for 2021-22, but a deal was apparently scuppered by Derby’s financial woes, with Mengi instead staying with United’s Under-23s.
Mengi spent the pre-season with the first team and featured for Solskjaer’s side, although that did not translate to any minutes in competitive action.
But with Raphael Varane not ready to return from injury and Phil Jones not registered in the Champions League, United’s senior options at centre-back are limited to just Harry Maguire, Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly.
If Rangnick does want wholesale changes, which has been suggested, Mengi may be a surprise starter – and what an opportunity it would represent for the 19-year-old.