The good news – and the concerns – about the Manchester United clash

Bruno Fernandes in Manchester United shirt –

It’s the business end of the season and Manchester United are still struggling on three fronts, having already secured their first title of the Erik ten Hag era with the League Cup. But can United end the season with more titles?

The challenge

Manchester United have already played 46 games in all competitions this season. To put that in context, it’s more games than Brentford, Fulham, Aston Villa, Crystal Palace, Wolves, Leeds, Everton, Nottingham Forest, Leicester and Bournemouth will each feature throughout the campaign, and the same number as Newcastle, who they meet at St James’ Park on Sunday. The game marks the first time United have played Newcastle since beating them in the Carabao Cup final in February.

While United could play up to 19 more games over a 63-day period this season, their rivals for a place in the top four have only the Premier League to focus on. Tottenham have just 10 games to play while Newcastle, who will level on points with United if they win this weekend, and Liverpool each have 12 league games remaining.

Should United beat Brighton to reach the FA Cup final on 3 June and also face the Europa League final in Budapest three days earlier, it means a 65-game season spanning a staggering 302 days. Only once in their history would they have played more games in a single season: in the 2008/09 season when they played 66 games.

How are they coping?

United had 15 representatives at the World Cup in Qatar and after the Wembley final against Newcastle there were signs that a hectic season was taking its toll on club and country.

Luke Shaw blamed United’s 7-0 humiliation at Liverpool on complacency after a first trophy win in six years, but against West Ham and Fulham in the FA Cup and first-half Real Betis at Old Trafford in the Europa League there seemed fatigue to be increasing.

United are fitter and more structured under Ten Hag than they were at any time in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era and better able to sustain intense outbursts in games. A full preseason that included numerous doubles sessions working on fitness, form and patterns of play provided an invaluable platform. But Ten Hag has largely drawn from the same pool of players and the workload has been particularly pressing for some.

United’s de facto captain Bruno Fernandes has recorded more minutes (4,571) and more games (53) for club and country than any other outfield player in Europe’s top five leagues. In fact, Fernandes, Lisandro Martinez, Marcus Rashford, Fred and Casemiro make the top 25 appearances for clubs and countries in the top five leagues.

Do you have the power in the deep?

Ten Hag’s biggest concern is the Casemiro-sized hole in his midfield. United will have to play league games against Newcastle, Brentford and Everton over the next eight days due to a suspension without their Brazilian pivot.

By the end of his third suspension of the season, Casemiro will have missed eight of 16 domestic games in 11 weeks. On the plus side, it should mean he’s fresh for the first round but the likes of Scott McTominay – who scored four goals for Scotland in the international break – and Marcel Sabitzer will have to deliver in his absence.

It doesn’t help that fellow midfielders Christian Eriksen and Donny van de Beek are both unavailable through injury (Eriksen could be back at the end of April) and that United’s attack is weakened by the weeks-long absence of Argentine winger Alejandro Garnacho with an ankle problem.

Rashford withdrew from the England squad with a wobble and Ten Hag is hoping his key attacker has benefited from the respite. He also got Raphael Varane fully fit again after a minor problem.

What about United’s forgotten man?

Anthony Martial has made just nine starts in all competitions after a season marred by a string of injuries. Ten Hag deliberately did not bring the France forward back this time to ensure he remains fit after the international break.

If he finds form and fitness, the 27-year-old could be crucial to United’s hopes in the coming weeks. Loaner Wout Weghorst has led the line in Martial’s absence but the Frenchman would provide the pace and scoring threat the Dutchman lacks and could help ease the strain on Rashford.

Aside from Martialisch, there are other players in the squad who were absent for a long time in the first half of the season – like Jadon Sancho and Aaron Wan-Bissaka – who are back and could become important.

Are their devices friendly?

United have played against Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool both home and away. There are tricky trips to Newcastle, Brighton and West Ham ahead and there will be pressure ahead of Wednesday’s Brentford game at Old Trafford as they were humiliated 4-0 at their place in August.

They have a friendlier run-in than Liverpool and Newcastle, who have played three consecutive away games after United’s visit, plus Arsenal who are yet to come, and a similar one to Spurs, even if it’s the sheer volume of games in such a short span that puts them up the biggest headaches.

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