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red morale Ole Gunnar Solskjaer facing difficult balancing act to keep his Man United stars aligned


Edinson Cavani signalled that he was up for the fight for a place in the Manchester United starting team

Edinson Cavani signalled that he was up for the fight for a place in the Manchester United starting team

Edinson Cavani signalled that he was up for the fight for a place in the Manchester United starting team

Whatever transpires at Manchester United this season, there should be few complaints about a shortage of options available to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The United manager may still lack a world-class defensive midfielder but others have been dealt poorer hands in the past and won the Premier League title.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Raphael Varane and Jadon Sancho’s arrivals for an initial €140 million have provided an injection of quality up front, at centre-half and on the wing.

But United’s success this season may be dictated as much by how well Solskjaer manages the playing time, morale and disgruntlement of those suddenly at risk of feeling like spare parts as the integration of new stars and who he gets to do the hard yards in a team likely to contain Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba.

As the transfer window closed on Tuesday night, the likes of Edinson Cavani, Donny van de Beek, Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard and Eric Bailly could have been forgiven for wondering what the next nine months holds for them. Mason Greenwood, United’s best player so far this term, and Victor Lindelof may require even more careful handling.

In the case of Van de Beek, an unused substitute in United’s opening three league games and now dropped by Holland, his agent Guido Albers lent a voice to the player’s concerns by revealing the midfielder is banking on Solskjaer honouring a “clear agreement” to give him more playing time after the club refused to entertain a loan move.

Unlike Van de Beek, Martial and Bailly, both of whom attracted tentative loan interest from Lyon, and Lingard, who spent the second half of last season on loan at West Ham, have had many opportunities to stake claims as regular fixtures but invariably fallen short of proving they are good enough to help drive United to the big trophies so sympathy may be muted.

Yet perhaps Solskjaer’s biggest headache will revolve around Cavani, with whom United went to great lengths to persuade to stay another year when it looked like the Uruguay striker might leave at the end of last season but who could now find his route to the first team routinely blocked by Ronaldo.

Cavani appeared to signal he was up for that fight by responding to the news he was staying at Old Trafford amid rumours of deadline day interest from Barcelona with a flexed biceps emoji and red ball on Instagram and he is certainly no stranger to fierce competition. At Paris Saint-Germain, he had to compete with the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Neymar and in his final two years Kylian Mbappe.

But, now 34 and in the twilight of his career, it is hard to see Solskjaer using Cavani in the sort of wide role supporting Ronaldo that he became accustomed to for a while at PSG in order to accommodate Ibrahimovic centrally.

Cavani has struggled to settle in England and, while United hope the return of crowds and easing of coronavirus restrictions will smooth that process for a player whose experience and leadership are valued, it may not matter if the Uruguayan is not getting on the pitch. He appreciated being given extra time off over the summer but he would have liked to be able to play for Uruguay during the upcoming internationals, which was vetoed in light of a Premier League wide decision to block players travelling to countries on the UK’s
red-list, and could yet see his No 7 shirt given to Ronaldo. That would not only require Cavani’s blessing but Premier League dispensation.

Daniel James leaving for Leeds has vacated the No 21 jersey that the striker wears for Uruguay so maybe an amicable solution can be found for Cavani.

When fit and available, he proved a marked upgrade on Martial last season and Solskjaer will need to find a way of giving his squad players enough game-time to ensure they are not undercooked when called upon to avoid a repeat of the final months of last term when too many key assets looked burnt out.

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The Norwegian has already admitted he “maybe overplayed” Fernandes and Marcus Rashford is currently sidelined until later next month following shoulder surgery after repeatedly being asked to play through the pain barrier.

Successful rotation will be vital, especially if United are not to falter through fatigue during the business end of the campaign.

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