At some point later this season, with Manchester United comfortably qualified for the Champions League, and Louis van Gaal’s name ringing around Old Trafford, the late summer will seem like a distant memory. Not a good one for United’s medical team, but one long forgotten nonetheless. Such is the enduring list of absentees that engulfs Van Gaal’s squad these days.
There is little to lighten the mood at Old Trafford as Everton visit on Sunday – especially with much change in the backroom where Tony Strudwick has effectively been demoted in favour of Dutch fitness coach Jos van Dijk, while United has sought to also limit physio Rod Thornley’s involvement with the England set-up. Whatever the cause of the an extended injury crisis Van Gaal is not prepared to stand still.
Without eight injured players on Sunday, Van Gaal must also adjust for Wayne Rooney’s absence, with the club captain sitting out the next three matches after taking a crude hack at Stuart Downing last the weekend. The Scouser has apparently apologised to his team-mates for the error which provoked a first Premier League red in five years, although as ever with Rooney, the fans didn’t feature in the behind closed doors mea culpa.
On the pitch United’s manager is likely to bring Juan Mata back into the fold after the Spaniard was dropped last weekend, while youngster Patrick McNair keeps his place. There is little choice with three central defenders still injured and the Dutchman reluctant to field two left-footed players – Marcos Rojo and Tyler Blackett – in the heart of United’s back-four.
McNair’s selection is, of course, also a vote in confidence after the Irishman’s positive debut against West Ham United – one that leads to the Dutchman fielding another youthful defensive line against Everton this weekend.
“We still have three central defenders injured so [McNair] shall play,” said Van Gaal on Friday. “He is the only player who can play in the right-sided defensive position. I chose him last week and he was very good. It’s difficult for a player like him to maintain that level – that is his biggest challenge.
“We have eight injuries and one red card so nine players are not available. It’s difficult to explain. You can be fit but not match fit – that’s a big difference. For example, Ander Herrera is fit but he cannot play because of his rib pressure. Marouane Fellaini has trained for one week but is not fit to play 90 minutes.”
McNair’s retention is Blackett’s loss. The 20-year-old Mancunia featured in five Premier League games this season before suspension against the Hammers – and faces an uncertain immediate future in Van Gaal’s side with Phil Jones and Chris Smalling both nearing fitness.
The Leicester City aberration aside, Blackett has also been United’s most consistent defender this season. In that there is, of course, some irony – that youth products such as Blackett and McNair should feature so heavily in the thinking after the club spent some £150 million on new players during the summer transfer window. It is a chance that both have taken impressively.
“I want to play in every game and I am trying to impress the manager enough to keep my place,” Blackett told the official website.
“Now that I have played a few games, it is one of those situations when you are hungry for more. There is healthy competition among the defenders. We have banter in training and we are all pushing each other to improve. We all want to succeed.”
Elsewhere Van Gaal must find a midfield combination without Ander Herrera, who broke a rib against West Ham. One of Adnan Januzaj and Darren Fletcher is likely to come into the side alongsidevDaley Blind and Angel Di Maria. Fletcher offers United greater defensive presence, although the Scotsman is patently unlikely to ever reach his former level, while Januzaj is yet to start a fixture this season. Much, no doubt, to the Belgian youngster’s frustration.
It is a pattern that points to Fletcher taking up the captaincy on Sunday. Not least with Van Gaal required to protect United’s fragile defence.
“I want my defensive organisation to be better,” said the Dutchman.
“It’s teamwork, so when we concede a goal it’s not only because of an individual error from the defence. It starts somewhere else and that is what we have to analyse and improve.
“We have a lot of creative attacking players in our selection and I like that but I also like to think that you have the discipline to come back in a certain shape because now we have conceded too many goals.”
Meanwhile, Roberto Martinez’ side arrives having suffered an equally difficult opening six games of the season, although manager the Spaniard will point to mitigating circumstances. Everton has certainly played better than a record of one win in six Premier League games suggests.
Martinez’ strategy at Old Trafford is helped little by Everton’s Europa League campaign, with the Merseysiders returning from a fixture against FK Krasnodar in the small hours of Friday morning. It cannot but have a debilitating effect despite the Spaniard’s upbeat demeanour.
“The kick-off time is a bit of a disappointment because every hour you can get is a bonus, but we don’t see that as an excuse or reason to moan,” said Martinez.
“We just have to have the right mentality in every game we go into. I don’t see it as a problem at all. We’re fully focused on facing Manchester United, a team we respect massively as a really good attacking force. In my eyes, they are going to do big things this season.”
Meanwhile, Everton forward Kevin Mirallas suffered a hamstring tear and is out for a month, while Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy are unlikely to feature. McCarthy has a muscle strain, suffered in the draw with Liverpool last weekend, while Coleman has recovered from concussion, but has a soft tissue problem. Steven Pienaar could come back into the side, but Ross Barkley is again missing. Former United midfielder Darron Gibson is likely to be on the bench.
Still, this is an Everton team that completed the double over United last season. The underwhelming start to the new campaign is surely a blip rather than the norm. Indeed, Everton has won three of their last four games against the Reds, including the 1-0 victory over David Moyes’ at Old Trafford last season.
Despite the difficult start Everton is also a club on the up – one revitalised by Martinez where Moyes brought only negativity and rancour to United. It is also an institution seeking a higher platform despite the restrictions on the budget imposed by an ageing Goodison Park. European football is both a blessing and a curse.
Which brings us neatly back to United – where the curse of injury has little blessing this season.
United (4-1-2-1-2): de Gea; Rafael, McNair, Rojo, Shaw; Blind; Fletcher, Di Maria; Mata; Van Persie, Falcao
Everton (4-3-3): Howard; Hibbert, Stones, Jagielka, Baines; Pienaar, Barry, Belsic; Naismith, Lukaku, McGeady
United: Lindegaard, Blackett, Vermijl, Thorpe, Janko, Pereira, Fellaini, Valencia, Anderson, Januzaj
Everton: Robles, Atsu, Alcaraz, Distin, Koné, Oviedo, Garbutt, Osman, Gibson, Long, Hope, McAlney, Browning, Eto’o
United 81- Draw 42 – Everton 65
Referee: Kevin Friend
Assistants: M McDonough, S Burt
Fourth Official: C Pawson
United 1-1 Everton
£1 bet club
Mata to open the scoring @ 7/1
Running total: £(-)7