This article is part of Football FanCast’s Opinion series, which provides analysis, insight and opinion on any issue within the beautiful game, from Paul Pogba’s haircuts to League Two relegation battles…
Astana. Partizan Belgrade. AZ Alkmaar. Hardly the most glamorous of returns to Europa League football this season for Manchester United.
Friday afternoon’s group stage draw certainly makes a passage into the last 32 fairly straightforward, but it has done the Red Devils no favours in terms of the sheer travelling they will have to do. The combined mileage of trips to Kazakhstan and Serbia alone makes for 8,000. And of course, it will mean the gruelling Thursday night/Sunday afternoon scheduling too.
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If Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is contemplating how he can turn the strains of the competition into a positive, then he simply has to use it as the platform to get his talented academy graduates some much-needed first-team minutes – the fairly low quality on offer in Group L should be the obvious way for him to do so.
The Norwegian revealed back in May that young players could be kept at the club rather than sent out on loan this season and that has been the case, with Joel Pereira the only exception to the rule. The likes of Mason Greenwood, Tahith Chong and Angel Gomes have all stayed on at Old Trafford – and the Europa League gives them a huge chance to make an impression at first team level.
The Red Devils’ lack of squad depth in certain positions – particularly going forward – means any injury to a first-team star would prove troublesome to their league campaign. As such, keeping them fully fresh and fit for the rigours of the Premier League is the most important thing for United at this early stage of the season. Leaving them out on Thursday nights will give them the opportunity to rest their legs and get ready to perform to their best abilities on the weekend.
Solskjaer may even look at the success Arsenal’s youngsters had last season, with some of the north London side’s academy prospects now featuring for the first-team or making their name on loan. If the United boss opts to play them in the cut-throat environment of the Premier League, then they will have a much bigger chance to sink, rather than swim.
So instead of throwing the club’s talented young stars into the deep end against the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City, Solskjaer would do well to test them in the shallow waters against Astana and Partizan. The Europa League could be a vital asset in getting these young talents up to speed, while giving United’s key players an invaluable rest.