Manchester United face RB Leipzig in the Champions League on Wednesday, knowing that victory will see them take a major step towards the knockout stages.
Last week’s win in Paris over last season’s finalists PSG was the perfect start for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men in a tough group, also featuring Istanbul Basaksehir.
Now, if the can see off Julian Nagelsmann’s men – who were semi-finalists in last season’s competition, having seen off Spurs en route – at Old Trafford, they will sit top of the group with six points from their opening two games.
Additionally, with RBL meeting PSG in back-to-back encounters in matchweek three and four, United will be offered a huge opportunity to extend their lead with their own back-to-back offering against the Turkish side – the lowest ranked side in Group H.
None of that is a given however, with Nagelsmann’s German upstarts in fine form, unbeaten in seven games so far this term, making light of the loss of top scorer Timo Werner.
And after seeing his side stumble to a goalless draw with Chelsea at the weekend in a drab affair, Solskjaer has decisions to make with regards his lineup against the Red Bulls.
In Paris, in what was a fine performance from United, they lined up with three centre-backs (but no Harry Maguire), Alex Telles and Aaron Wan-Bissaka as wing-backs, with Fred and Scott McTominay sitting in midfield, stifling the PSG front three of Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Angel di Maria.
United countered well with the speed of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, and the probing of Bruno Fernandes.
Then, as the game opened up in the second half with the scores level, Paul Pogba was introduced and something akin to a 3-4-3/5-2-2-1 formation – depending on how you want to look at it with or without the ball – became more 4-2-2-2.
That led to a number of fine late chances, with Rashford ultimately netting the winner. Both the pre-game decisions and in-game changes showed the kind of tactical savvy not all that readily associated with the United boss.
Minus the suspended Martial and with Pogba still not fully fit after illness, Solskjaer reverted to the side that beat Newcastle and a 4-2-3-1 formation at the weekend – and witnessed a game of little inspiration and few chances at the weekend.
The only real bright spots for United were the clean sheet – Victor Lindelof was excellent and David de Gea was largely untroubled – and the introduction of Edinson Cavani, who added a sharp penalty box presence to their attack.
Against RBL, expect Cavani to remain on the bench; the Uruguayan is still not fully fit and Martial, who won the penalty against PSG from which Fernandes opened the scoring, is available having missed the Chelsea game through suspension.
The United No.9 will lead the line once more, with Rashford likely reverting to a slightly deeper role.
But against Nagelsmann’s attack-minded, tactically-flexible outfit, how does Solskjaer line up?
Does he stick with the 4-2-3-1 formation that has been his preference for much of his time in charge at Old Trafford?
Does he revert to the back three and wing-backs, potentially bringing Telles or Axel Tuanzebe into his lineup?
Or does he go for the jugular, and start as United finished at the Parc des Princes, with Martial, Rashford, Fernandes and Pogba as the side’s four most advanced players, with a back four and two holding midfielders?
If he opts for the latter, it could be an end-to-end shootout.
United were excellent defensively in their last two games, but largely toothless in attack at the weekend, failing to score and managing an xG total of just 0.65, according to Understat.com.
Now the balance needs to be spot on against a Leipzig side who, under Nagelsmann, have emerged as one of Europe’s best in transition.
Solskjaer’s in-game adaptations ultimately decided the game in Paris as he out-thought Thomas Tuchel, while he didn’t just settle for like-for-like subs against Frank Lampard at the weekend – and it almost paid off again.
Now, if he can out-think the German coaching wunderkind, United will heap pressure on their Group H rivals, and hold their European destiny very much in their own hands.
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