Manchester United Could See Another Surprise Player Emerge

As Man United continue to struggle with their squad rebuild, the chances of another ‘surprise’ player emerging this season are high.

Seven years ago, Jose Mourinho predicted a “surprise behind the door” in the Manchester United squad. Behind the door was Phil Jones.

Mourinho was referring to a player’s sudden emergence and Jones’s return was Lazarus-like. He had not played since January 2 and was suddenly parachuted into the team at Swansea in mid-November. It was the first of 12 starts for Jones in a 13-match unbeaten Premier League streak.

Scott McTominay’s prominence during Mourinho’s second season was a ‘surprise’ and so was Anthony Elanga under the interim charge of Ralf Rangnick. Alejandro Garnacho was an overnight sensation. You would have struggled for odds on Odion Ighalo or Wout Weghorst signing for United in the Januarys of 2020 and 2023.

The mid-season managerial choices of Rangnick and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer were leftfield. The same year Mourinho was appointed, United had Wayne Rooney injured, Ashley Fletcher and James Wilson out on loan, Will Keane tore a groin muscle and Anthony Martial withdrew from a warm-up. That paved the way for the 18-year-old Marcus Rashford.

United could do with finding someone else lurking behind the door. The bench against Nottingham Forest was shallow and callow, with Dan Gore promoted and Alvaro Fernandez back in the matchday squad for the first time since May 2022.

United have hitherto failed to strengthen the squad depth. Jonny Evans, 35 and absent for 27 of Leicester City’s matches last term, barely bolsters the first-team central defence.

Watching Mason Mount in his ineffectual starts, United are actually down a central midfielder with Fred gone. They have four left-backs on the books but Erik ten Hag wants a specialist addition, hardly a ringing endorsement for his first signing Tyrell Malacia.

Going off Ten Hag’s sketchy timeframe that Malacia is out for a few more weeks, he should be available for some of United’s five fixtures in September. Eyeing up a Spanish left-back suggests there is little faith in Malacia, who reported for pre-season injured.

Malacia had a purple patch at the start of his United career but he has since looked like the Eredivisie back-up he is. His arrival did at least allow United to cut their losses on Alex Telles.

Ten Hag has been in denial over United’s midfield issues but they were glaring again against Forest. Rashford was the deepest for the United corner that Taiwo Awoniyi scored from and Casemiro was static for Willy Boly’s headed goal.

Casemiro at least improved with Christian Eriksen back alongside him as Mount watched on from the directors’ box. Still, when Ten Hag sought to beef up the middle, Scott McTominay was the sole senior option and he clumsily conceded a free-kick he somehow avoided a booking for.

Eriksen completed a rare 90 minutes; the 13th time he has done so for United and his first since January. That was at Arsenal and out of necessity on a day United were deprived of the suspended Casemiro.

Ten Hag noted how effortlessly Eriksen, a renowned playmaker, settled into a deeper role at United. That was beyond Mount in pre-season and against Wolves and Tottenham.

Kobbie Mainoo was mentioned by Ten Hag unprompted in response to a question that centred on McTominay’s role. Mainoo, sidelined until mid-September at the earliest, was accommodated in the same line-up as Casemiro and Mount against Real Madrid in Houston last month and once he regains fitness can expect greater exposure as he bids to become the latest academy breakthrough.

Had Mainoo and Mount been available to face Arsenal this weekend, Ten Hag would have had ample options to alter the front six, possibly with Bruno Fernandes on the right and Mount in the No.10 position. Mainoo excelled against Arsenal in New Jersey and Ten Hag has spoken so effusively about him that the trust in the 18-year-old is unwavering.

The option is still there at the Emirates on Sunday: Eriksen off the striker, Fernandes on the right but McTominay next to Casemiro. United are due to be pitted against an entirely different Arsenal axis in midfield to the one they encountered in January. Where once there was Granit Xhaka and Thomas Partey, now there is Declan Rice and Martin Odegaard.

Some United supporters already feel uneasy about the 31-year-olds Casemiro and Eriksen starting there but they are specialists and the most balanced duo selectable. Eriksen reduced Forest’s lead and Casemiro extinguished it.