Erik ten Hag has quickly formed a clear picture of his most effective team at Manchester United.
Four Premier League games have seen minimal changes to his team selection and have resulted in four consecutive wins after the Dutch coach made bold calls to drop the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Harry Maguire.
But the arrival of the Europa League group stage allows Ten Hag the perfect opportunity to shuffle his pack and Thursday night’s game against Real Sociedad is likely to see a very different United XI.
Summer acquisitions have strengthened competition for places within the squad, leaving a number of players desperate to seize their chance to impress on Europa Thursdays and get back in the weekend side.
The Manchester United players take part in a training ground exercise as they prepare to take on Real Sociedad in the UEFA Europa League on Thursday night
The fact United were only in the Europa League this season was a chief reason behind Ronaldo’s efforts to exit the club over the summer.
The 37-year-old is desperate to pull further clear of his rival Lionel Messi in the all-time Champions League goalscorers’ list and, having failed to ultimately secure a move, that won’t happen this season.
Ronaldo’s task now is to score the goals that help United back into Europe’s elite competition, either through a top four league finish or, indeed, by winning the Europa League.
If involved against Sociedad, Ronaldo will play his first game in this tournament since 2002 when it was still known as the UEFA Cup and he played for Sporting Lisbon against Partizan Belgrade.
Cristiano Ronaldo has found himself benched by Erik ten Hag in the Premier League but should be involved against Sociedad as he plays in the competition for the first time in 20 years
Ronaldo’s last appearance in the Europa League was back in October 2002 for Sporting Lisbon against Partizan Belgrade – the competition was then known as the UEFA Cup
He must quickly dispel any notion that the Europa League is beneath him because, as it stands, these are the only games he is likely to start.
Ronaldo was benched following the humiliating 4-0 defeat at Brentford and has been limited to late cameos off the bench.
His work rate and willingness to press during Sunday’s win over Arsenal did suggest, however, that Ronaldo is willing to buy in to Ten Hag’s way of doing things.
When at Real Madrid, Ronaldo played against Sociedad on nine occasions and remarkably scored 15 goals, including two hat-tricks. They are just one of many LaLiga teams he has terrorised in the past.
And with United favourites to win the Europa League, Ronaldo surely has it within him to steer them to glory and make his second spell at Old Trafford worthwhile.
A storming performance at Old Trafford might also persuade Ten Hag to have a rethink and restore Ronaldo to the spearhead of the attack for Sunday’s trip to Crystal Palace.
Ronaldo put a real shift in after being introduced from the bench in Sunday’s win over Arsenal
The sight of Harry Maguire picking up a yellow card for hauling down Gabriel Jesus within seconds of coming off the bench on Sunday summed up where United’s captain is right now.
There was a distinct sense that despite United leading Arsenal 3-1 at the time, some great calamity was about to befall them in the closing minutes.
Ten Hag demoted him to the bench following that defensive horror show at Brentford and with new boy Lisandro Martinez quickly forming a solid partnership with Raphael Varane, you wonder how the captain will regain his place.
He could well find himself playing exclusively in the Europa League and the Carabao Cup for the time being as Ten Hag will wish to further strengthen the understanding between Varane and Martinez in the league matches.
Captain Harry Maguire has also been dropped to the bench but could play regularly in Europe
United’s bench for the Arsenal match featured Tom Heaton, Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw, Casemiro, Anthony Elanga, Cristiano Ronaldo, Fred, Victor Lindelof and Martin Dubravka
How United could line up on Thursday
Dalot, Varane, Maguire, Shaw
Elanga, Van de Beek, Rashford
That’s far from ideal for Maguire, not least with the World Cup fast approaching, but playing the European matches offers a chance to restore the assurance and composure that has deserted him over the past year.
Sociedad are expected to provide United with their stiffest examination in the group – certainly ahead of Sheriff Tiraspol and Omonia Nicosia – so a clean sheet and few dramas at Old Trafford will do Maguire a world of good.
We all know that Maguire is a formidable presence when at his best and slowly but surely he can back to that level by playing in this competition.
He may have cost United a cool £70m but Ten Hag has so far resisted the temptation to throw Casemiro in from the start and instead is slowly immersing him in the demands of Premier League football.
The Brazilian made his debut off the bench for the final 10 minutes at Southampton, was given half-an-hour against Leicester and was a late replacement for Marcus Rashford as United bolted the door late on against Arsenal.
Casemiro may be a star name and a serial champion when at Real Madrid but he may have to be patient at United.
Ten Hag has stumbled upon a pretty effective midfield with Scott McTominay using the fear of losing his place to produce some storming performances and Christian Eriksen playing brilliantly in a kind of hybrid No 6/No 8 role.
Casemiro is slowly being introduced to English football following his £70m move to United
You’d still fancy those two to start at Selhurst Park this Sunday, meaning Casemiro could well get his first start against Sociedad for what will be his first-ever taste of Europa League football.
Chances are in time, the Brazilian will be phased in to replace McTominay in Ten Hag’s strongest XI and there is a good deal of pragmatism at work in not simply chucking him in at the deep end.
If he dominates the midfield battle on Thursday night, the case to play him in the Premier League sooner will become more compelling. He’s a class act and should easily be able to handle it.
Rather like Ronaldo, Casemiro is more accustomed to hearing Zadok the Priest before European matches – he has five Champions League winners medals – rather than the less classy Europa anthem.
But if he has to slum it for this season, at least he can help ensure it’s only temporary.
Fred and Casemiro are Tite’s chosen midfield pairing for Brazil and could do the same here
Many of the same things can be said about Fred, who lost his place following that Brentford debacle, in which he was hooked for McTominay at half-time. Since then, he’s played only 46 minutes of football in four matches.
Potentially the Europa League could offer him the opportunity to recreate his partnership with Casemiro from the Brazil national side, especially handy for Selecao coach Tite ahead of the Qatar World Cup.
For Ten Hag, he’s probably United’s fourth choice midfielder right now but his willingness to put in a shift sometimes compensates for a lack of refined technical ability.
Fred has slipped down the pecking order at Manchester United after summer arrivals
As always seems to be the case, United will find themselves reliant on Fred at some point during the season, so the Europa is starting at the right time to get some miles in his legs.
Fred featured prominently during United’s run to the Europa League final in 2021 but was then dropped for the final, which they lost on penalties to Villarreal.
He should get the chance to atone for that this time around as part of what might be described as a second-choice midfield pairing.
Shaw finds himself in a similar boat to Maguire. With thoughts drifting ahead to the England squad for the World Cup, he’ll be concerned about losing his left-back spot for country as well as club.
Tyrell Malacia has come in and made a very bright start, with Ten Hag favouring him in recent matches and it looks as though Shaw will be warming the bench in the Premier League for the foreseeable.
So the Europa League could provide the ideal stage to issue a reminder of what he can do at a pivotal time.
Luke Shaw started the season at left-back for United but has been overtaken by Malacia
United’s Europa games
Thursday Real Sociedad (H)
September 15 Sheriff Tiraspol (A)
October 6 Omonia Nicosia (A)
October 13 Omonia Nicosia (H)
October 27 Sheriff Tiraspol (H)
November 3 Real Sociedad (A)
Like Maguire, he was world class during the 2020-21 campaign but saw his form slump dramatically last season, not aided by annoying fitness issues. He must get back on track somehow.
Shaw won the Europa League with United in 2017 and reached another final in 2021, so he’s no stranger to playing in it and won’t feel it’s beneath him.
Malacia is the chosen one at the moment but a string of solid performances in Europe could well plant the seed of doubt in Ten Hag’s mind over who his better option is.
Life has come quickly at Elanga, who enjoyed a superb breakthrough campaign in 2021-22 and looked set to kick on this term under a coach who enjoys bringing on young talents.
But the big money signing of Antony from Ajax, and the Brazilian’s scoring debut against Arsenal in his position, will have forced a reappraisal.
That isn’t to say Elanga won’t get game time but it looks like it will now come predominantly in the Europa League.
The 20-year-old shouldn’t be underwhelmed by that but instead try to dominate the competition and take United as far as he can with a flurry of goals and assists.
He’s one of the most exciting players to emerge from the United academy in a long time and it would be criminal if his chances to shine dried up after making such an impact.
The arrival of Antony from Ajax has put Anthony Elanga’s place in the attack under pressure
Donny van de Beek
Any hope of Van de Beek’s seriously underwhelming United career being kick-started by a reunion with his former Ajax mentor Ten Hag already seems to have faded.
He has played only 19 minutes of football so far this season and with the arrivals of Casemiro and Eriksen, it’s increasingly difficult to see where he slots into that midfield even on a semi-regular basis.
Everything could change with an injury or two but Van de Beek hasn’t been able to enjoy a regular run of games since arriving at United to show properly what he can do.
Maybe he’ll get another chance in the upcoming Europa games and he certainly is in desperate need of some time on the pitch.
Donny van de Beek desperately needs to get on the pitch after just 19 minutes so far
He was meant to get that when on loan at Everton during the second-half of last season but a thigh injury ruined his chance.
Coming into a crucial phase of his career at the age of 25, Van de Beek needs to be playing and this looks like his best shot. The question is whether he can grab the opportunity.
Thankfully it looks as though David de Gea will have some competition for the United Player of the Year award this time around.
It’s never a great sign when your goalkeeper is the best player in the squad and De Gea certainly rescued United on multiple occasions last season.
He shouldn’t be playing every single match this season and that’s why the signing of Martin Dubravka on loan from Newcastle is important.
Martin Dubravka could be United’s designated Europa League keeper to rest David de Gea
In 2016-17 when United won the Europa League, Sergio Romero was the designated the specialist for that competition and played in the final ahead of De Gea.
Something similar could happen with Dubravka, a way of keeping the understudy stopper engaged and feeling like he’s contributing something to the cause.