Manchester United head to Brighton this evening needing three points to maintain their run in search of a Champions League place.
The Red Devils are expected to field a similar side to the one that cruised past Sheffield United 3-0 last Wednesday, but one position that manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer seems unsure about is the right wing.
Mason Greenwood was given a rare Premier League start there against the Blades and whilst he acquitted himself well, Solskjaer’s tendency to play him sparingly this season may mean that Daniel James is recalled for this crucial game.
On paper it should be a game for which James’ blistering pace is suited – Brighton are much more adventurous under Graham Potter than they were under Chris Hughton, although they still put a lot of men behind the ball when out of possession. Quick counter-attacking is vital against that kind of system. But can we trust James to deliver?
The fact is that after a fantastic start to his United career, the Welshman has lost confidence and his performances have been poor. The pace is still there, but the ability to cross, pass and desire to take on his defender are not, at least right now. Commendably, Solskjaer wants to give the player time and space to find his feet. But can he afford to do that under these circumstances?
On the other hand, you can’t expect Greenwood to be Mr. Predictable on the right wing either. Still only 18 years of age and playing out of position, he has to his credit scored 12 goals this season. But at times on Wednesday he looked easy to mark and struggled to make the kind of instinctive runs as a winger that he does so effortlessly when playing as a striker.
It makes sense nonetheless to promote the Englishman ahead of the Welshman at this stage. He is learning on the job and is confident. The question is whether Solskjaer’s faith in James will see him continue to rotate them.
That faith the manager has in players who are underperforming is arguably one of his biggest weaknesses. Sticking by David de Gea during a poor run of form at the end of last season was in part responsible for United’s failure to qualify for the Champions League. His faith in the likes of Jesse Lingard and Andreas Pereira this season has been baffling and resulted in some dire team performances. This is not the time to be the cuddly manager who strokes players’ egos and helps them to develop. This is crunch time.
There are few other options beside the two youngsters. Marcus Rashford could be switched to the right to give James a chance on his preferred left wing. With Rashford on the right, in theory Anthony Martial could be moved back out to the left and Odion Ighalo – or Greenwood – given a start through the middle. But moving the Frenchman away from the striker role right now would be counter-productive.
So it surely has to be Greenwood, but if it isn’t and Dan James’ name is on the teamsheet this evening, it should at least be the perfect opportunity to ‘grow a pair’ and finally reward the manager’s faith in him.