And Lust for Higher Targets
Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial's goals against the visiting Austrian challengers all but let the air out of the balloon of an improbable chance that Linzer Athletik-Sport-Klub (LASK) would overturn the aggregate lead the Red Devils had built in the away first leg matchup. It was always going to be a fool's errand to attempt to erase five away United goals.
LASK started spiritedly enough to ruffle the feathers of the deeply rotated United team. Ole Gunnar Solskjær had, predictably, made several changes allowing squad players like Lingard, Fosu-Mensah, Mata, McTominay, Fred, and a couple of youngsters from the youth academy - Chong and Mengi showcase their talent. Weisinger's 55th minute laser, was an absolute banger that fizzed past the trusty number two goalie Romero. The Argentine was as faultless as the ball that rocketed swiftly past him. It definitely woke United who had been slumbering through a particularly disjointed display.
Martial scores United's second goal against LASK
The game had the air of a training match as the eventual result was never in doubt. However, there were some notable things that seduced the interest of fans. One was the debut of the brand new United home and training kit, the other was another debut - Tenden Mambuene Mengi, a much celebrated academy defender, finally got time in the senior team. The gaffer and lots of United supporters are very giddy about this lad's potential. Mengi's composure at just 18 years old is fantastic to see. His introduction in the 71st minute marked the eighth youngster from the academy Solskjær had called upon this season, a unique record. It is now undeniable that Ole's focus on building an exciting side that exudes the DNA of United, and embraces youth has lifted all boats.
Teden Mengi makes his senior debut for United
The second thing of note is even more important. The use of Tahith Chong as a left wingback of sorts was an eyebrow raising utilization of the sometimes underwhelming Dutch youngster. It led me to believe Ole is already working on fixing the clearest and most present hurdle in the club's path to seriously challenging their high octane bitter rivals - City and Liverpool. What about this seemingly unremarkable experiment of replacing the ever fiesty Brandon Williams with Chong was illuminating? It is all about recognizing the pivot in Solskjær's rejuvenation project.
Ole has already, and admirably so, fixed the goal production issue upfront with Martial, Rashford, and Greenwood combining to provide replicable goal production with that of the top two teams. The red devil's front three have produced a total of 44 goals and 14 assists between them, compared to title winning 46 goals and 25 assists provided by the energetic trio of Salah, Mane, and Firmino. City's Sterling, Aguero, and Jesus scorched past United and Liverpool with 50 goals, but a telling drop in creation at 11 assists between them aligns well with City's frontmen's more selfish style of play.
United have been in a dark arrested development since Ferguson decided to hang it up. The goal production from this formerly dominant institution has been dire, a stark contrast of the swashbuckling United of yore. Since the 2017 season, United have not peaked past 68 goals, whilst City and Liverpool have peaked at 106 and 89 goals respectfully. This season the red devils goal and assists per 90 minutes (G+A/90 mins) of 2.8 is egregiously dwarfed by City's mark at 4.5 and Liverpool's 4.0 G+A/90 mins. United desperately lacks creators, even with the addition of the prolific Fernandes, there still exists a broad issue of narrow margins as it pertains to having players at multiple and varying positions contributing to goal creation.
Liverpool has the broadest formula which will be hard to match talkless of beat! Klopp has an all energy squad with players in every single position contributing in some measure to the goal creation haul. This season the champions had an array of contributors, Wijnaldum (4 goals), Oxlade-Chamberlain (4 goals, 1 assist), Henderson (4 goals, 5 assists), Fabinho (2 goals, 3 assists), Milner (2 goals, 2 assists), Keita (2 goals, 3 assists) - that's 18 goals and 14 assists from Klopp's midfield, with even the more static or defensive midfielders are pitching in. Liverpool's ace in the hole remains the glaringly out-of-worldly production they get from, their full backs. Alexander Arnold (4 goals, 13 assists) and Robertson (2 goals, 12 assists) are the gems that create the complete mismatch with any opposition - both lads command a staggering 25 assists and 6 goals.
Solskjær will have to have a luckier 2020 season with Pogba, the Bruno acquisition was spot on as he instantly added 8 goals and 7 assists from the once dead United midfield. If Pogba can stay injury free, and focused solely on the project in front him, United can begin to bridge the gap there especially if McTominay (4 goals, 1 assist) and Pereira (1 goal, 3 assists) continue to grow. But definitely not with the measly contributions of Fred (0 goals, 0 assists), Mata (0 goals, 2 assists), and Lingard (1 goal, 0 assists).
Playing Chong as a left back was Ole's first enquiry, his first foray into investigating the possibilities of boosting goal creation from deep wide position using players who already have natural inclination of being comfortable on the ball. Creative midfielders already have the beating of their man, and are able to deliver a ball with considerable accuracy - hence the use of Chong, and others have suggested retooling Fred there as well. You only have to look at Shaw contributions at zero assists and goals at left back to understand Ole's expedition.
Chong is deployed as a left back
The use of both Fosu-Mensah and Chong at the full back flanks have not reaped rewards as of yet, even the most optimistic observer would succumb to the realties of the limited capabilities of these reserve players. Both players would be better served going out on loans to bolster their match sharpness under a steady routine of competitive games away from Old Trafford. However, it is encouraging to see Ole probing at, and acknowledging the problem. His coy maneuvering for Jadon Sancho at Borussia Dortmund is an astute attempt to add major contributions to the midfield, however he will need more to reconcile the current deficit.
Ole will have to clear more deadwood at the club to free up financial resources, the most anticipated departure was confirmed to today as the largely disappointing Alexis Sanchez permanently joined Conte's Inter Milan side. Rumors of a pursuit for Porto's Alex Telles should be met with the most anxious and highest of hopes. That type of player can ignite meaningful contributions from the back, and maybe model the way for United's best one on one defender, Wan-Bissaka, to increase his assist tally (4), and maybe inspire him to sprinkle in some goals of his own.
Adding the Europa trophy to the cabinet this season only serves as psychogical conquest, supporters are looking for something tangible to celebrate other than qualifying for Champions League next season, this United team need a taste of cup success to conjure the self belief needed to push on to higher challenges, Ole and his benefactors would gleefully count a Europa Cup as one more milestone reached in this rebuild effort even though it hasn't been too long ago when the club scaled over this marker as they won it all against an up and coming Ajax side.
So definitely no downside in trying to win the competition. However with the short timeline left, and the restart to next season upon the horizon. United need to be more laser focused on deciding what chips need to be moved around, and totally immersed in the analytics pertaining to solving the calculus of how to breakthrough the 68 goal ceiling. It would be wholly insigficant if they did splendidly well in Europe's second tier competition only to surrender to the ignominy of becoming seasonal also-rans or best of the rest.
Data Source: FBREF.com (Data Sports Group & StatsBomb)