2022-23 FIRST HALF : THE BAR IS HIGH
After the greatest season in Premier League history, the only place United can really go is down. That isn’t necessarily bad for Mauricio Pochettino, nobody can reasonably expect the team to constantly improve or inch closer to a 38-0-0 league record, but everyone knew he was going to face constant comparisons to last year. One advantage that Pochettino has coming into this season is a wider lead on the rest of the league in terms of stadium size, a completed expansion now has Old Trafford seating 91,650 with a growing list of demands for season tickets.
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE DRAW
Manchester United (England)
Inter Milan (Italy)
Barcelona again! Jürgen Klopp just won’t go away, but with this group that might be the least of Pochettino’s problems. Pep Guardiola and a pile of transfer funds make Inter Milan a tough draw, poor Celtic get stuck in a group of death where a single misstep could eliminate the defending champions. Visits from Barcelona and Inter should fill the newly expanded Old Trafford, hopefully the 2022 World Cup doesn’t damage United’s run.
The other English teams involved don’t have it all that much easier, aside from Manchester City in Group A (Zenit, SC Braga, Olympiakos) things are going to be tricky. Liverpool were drawn with RB Leipzig, Lazio, and CSKA Moscow. Tottenham landed with Juventus, Valencia, and Young Boys in a group they could easily advance from. The only other group competing with Group B in terms of difficulty is Group C (Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, AS Monaco, Porto), this is going to be an interesting year.
MATCH OF THE FIRST HALF
Champions League (A) : Barcelona 1 - Manchester United 4
There is a good argument to call the first meeting, a terse 1-0 win at Old Trafford, the game of the first half just based on the level of difficulty injuries created. Enzo Marino was out sick, Edward Wessex had a broken rib, and Pochettino only had one RB left (Álvaro Odriozola). Youngster Bagaudin Arbuzov had to be brought in as an emergency backup, he arrived late to the game because he literally didn’t believe he was being called up. Apparently he thought the whole thing was a prank. Pochettino wasn’t laughing.
The group had already been decided by this point, the only thing driving the excitement of this game was the growing Pochettino-Klopp rivalry. The venue and previous margin of victory also made this game interesting, Barcelona came into this game slight favorites despite an unimpressive 3-0-2 record in the group. If the line was intended to drive betting, it worked, but the prediction couldn’t have been off my much more. It was probably more stunning to see a Klopp coached side fold so quickly and put on a display befitting a team more interested in going home.
Florentino Luís scored at 20’ from a few paces above the arc, and just two minutes later Mason Greenwood opened his PoM campaign when he combined with Jadon Sancho on an ill advised back pass. A Fernandes penalty made it 3-0 just before the half and Klopp’s stares could have burned holes in steel, he looked like he was on the verge of ripping his seat out and throwing it at any Barcelona player stupid enough to get near him.
Júnior Firpo scored at 61’ off a corner, but the Sancho-Greenwood connection struck again with a brilliant through ball that left Marc-André ter Stegen on his knees looking dejected. Every United player finished the game with a rating of 7.0 or higher, with only Firpo managing that threshold for the hosts. Greenwood’s double would propel a 9.2 rating and PoM, who needs Rashford when you have a backup like this? The win was a great way to cap off an abbreviated first half, maybe Barcelona’s players were thinking about Dubai more than the game?
TRIPPING OUT OF THE GATE
2022 was a bad year for England. A short first half of the season would lead into a sweltering World Cup in Qatar where temperatures still managed to peak at 32°C despite moving it to the winter, sadly that was not the worst thing to happen as England lost 3-2 to France in the first knockout round. More salt in the wound came as France advanced to the final and lost to Italy 1-0 to give the Azzurri their 5th title. United players were present and making a name for themselves with a few garnering awards (more on that later) and tiring out their legs for the end of the season.
Before the World Cup even hit Pochettino had his share of problems, the Cityzens and denizens of Anfield were more than delighted with United’s struggles out of the gate. United logged (6) injuries in August, their worst month of the season, which actually turned out to have less impact than injuries in September. David De Gea and Bruno Fernandes would be out for (2) weeks each, both close together, and that was enough for the dream of an Invincible repeat to die. After starting out 3-1-0 with a (46) game unbeaten streak running back to last season the team would fall prey to Wolves in a 3-2 loss that made the two Captains look indispensable. Dani Olmo played well, but Dean Henderson became a goat almost immediately after accounting for the loss against Wolves along with a stunning 1-0 loss to Brighton & Hove Albion. The team rolled right into a 2-2 draw at Inter and it was right about this time that the vitriol among the most impatient United fans started to bubble up with some members of the media quick to jump in. Could two losses really indicate a total collapse?
The first half of the season had two glaring problems, with one threatening their overall season performance. While Pochettino continued his unbeaten streak from the end of last season it also looked like he brought their tendency to give up goals regularly, though this time it wasn’t coming with substantial scoring streaks of their own. Allowing Arsenal (2), Inter (2), Celtic (2), and Wolves (3) to score multiple goals was not something anyone expected of this tough defense. In most cases it didn’t matter because United were scoring freely, but 1-0 wins over tough competition (Liverpool, Manchester City, Barcelona) seemed to indicate that United were feasting on minnows.
The second problem, for United and himself, was Marcus Rashford having an awful start to his season. Through his first (7) starts of the season the young striker only managed (2) goals, with both of them coming on penalties. Rashford went through an extended streak of excellent opportunities, being fed into an opening by Fernandes, only to miss wide or send the shot right into the keeper. Things got much worse for him during the Champions League when he went down against Inter with sprained knee ligaments in October, the injury would cost him (6) weeks and a spot on England’s World Cup squad. Rashford was absolutely heartbroken, on a personal level the injury was devastating, and it didn’t help his mood at all to see Mason Greenwood going on a tear. In that (7) game span Greenwood would score (5) in (4) games, too small of a sample size to really draw any conclusions but it wasn’t helping Rashford’s case. The injury came close enough to the World Cup break that Pochettino wouldn’t need to start youngster Rudie Eymbert at all, Greenwood would need to handle the load until the break.
There was a bit of 1st World Problems in United’s struggles, they went right back to winning when De Gea and Fernandes returned (highlighting how important they are) and did their best to take 1st in the Champions League group. A draw with Inter turned out to be the worst thing that happened in the group, . After everything was said and done, with players heading off to a World Cup in a furnace, United were top of the league and still in a position to keep their silverware at home.
FIRST HALF AWARDS & PLAUDITS
The shortened first half didn’t leave much room to impress, but United players did enough to gain some attention during the World Cup to take home a bit of silverware. The bigger story was someone coming up short on some major silverware, three times to be exact, as Bruno Fernandes found himself coming up just a hair below Kylian Mbappé on the awards circuit. Fernandes came in 2nd in the Ballon d’Or (won by Mbappé), FIFA Best Player (won by Eden Hazard), and FIFPro Best Player (won by Mbappé) to extend the quality of his signing. Paul Pogba leaving was disappointing, but fans have moved on pretty quickly and the team is clearly Fernandes’ now.
World Cup Golden Boot : Victor Tsygankov (Ukraine) - (4) goals, (1) assist
FIFA Best U21 : Mason Greenwood
FIFA GK : David De Gea
European Golden Boy : Ryan Gravenberch
Serbian FA Player Of The Year : Sergej Milinkovic-Savic
Eva and her crew of highly trained physios were hard at work during the first half of the season, in some cases she had to give daily updates on certain injuries. As the losses mounted up De Gea’s leg became the center of attention in Manchester thanks to a few losses under Dean Henderson. August and September were in pissing contests to see which month could ruin United’s season more, both took turns creating substantial holes in the squad.
August saw Jean-Clair Todibo open his United career by pulling a hamstring in training (9 days), and then Dayot Upamecano came down with a bad case of food poisoning that forced him to miss the Arsenal match and kept him out a full week. Victor Tsygankov pulled his calf during the UEFA Super Cup and had to sit out for (3) weeks and then Sergej Milinkovic-Savic joined him with a twisted knee. Marcus Rashford bruised his knee against Wolves, a minor injury, and then Ousmane Dembélé reasserted himself as the injury King and got knocked out for (3) weeks with a pulled calf. Losing Dembélé really stung as both RW were now out, an early positional crisis is not a good way to defend your title.
September was just as bad with the previously mentioned injury to De Gea happening on international duty with Spain, losing him for (2) weeks was a disaster. The Injury Gods were cruel as Enzo Marino missed a week with the flu, then twisted his ankle against Newcastle United (1 week) and Edward Wessex broke a rib (3 weeks) while filling in for him during the game. All of that seemed bad enough, but then Bruno Fernandes damaged his foot against Manchester City and sat out for (2) weeks.
Pochettino was feeling the heat with De Gea and Fernandes out at the same time, but things got really heartbreaking as the season went into October. With the World Cup bearing down on everyone and a genuine feeling of excitement and hope around England’s chances in the tournament, Marcus Rashford would sprain ligaments in his right knee against Inter and be ruled out for (6) weeks. The injury would essentially rule him out of the World Cup, at best he could make the trip as a sub with an injury concern hanging over his head. Rashford handled it well, but he was clearly saddened by the timing and the impact on his international career. Enzo Marino would play in the World Cup, but he would not come back at 100% after an ankle injury would knock him out for (4) weeks. The only upside of the poorly timed World Cup would be a long stretch of time for injuries to heal and players who didn’t head for Qatar to rest, the insane fixture list in the second half would require as much rest as possible.
Rashford is missing out on a potential Golden Generation.