How the 2022 World Cup will affect United
So the first part of Manchester United's 2022/23 campaign ends on a massive high, with the late winner at Fulham providing an exhilarating finale to this section of the most unusual of seasons.
Alejandro Garnacho's superb goal was the perfect tonic for every Red, supplying a memory that will last throughout the Premier League break of six weeks and far beyond that.
It was the ideal way to round off a taxing schedule that was pretty exhausting, and provides a welcome puff of the cheeks in satisfaction, knowing United are well placed to achieve our aims when domestic football resumes with our Carabao Cup tie against Championship leaders Burnley just before Christmas.
So what now, as we prepare for the World Cup finals to start in Qatar this weekend?
We do know Erik ten Hag's planning for this break started some time ago, and a spell in Spain has been confirmed, incorporating two friendlies with Cadiz and Real Betis. For those not on international duty, this should prove a valuable period where the coaching staff emphasise their methods and put the building blocks in place for what lies ahead.
Garnacho, of course, is one of the individuals not going to the Middle East and Ten Hag has already admitted the halt to his momentum is something that needs managing. The 18-year-old must be on cloud nine at the moment, but is set to wait before returning to the country of his birth with the squad to try and maintain his outstanding form in those friendlies, which will be shown live on MUTV.
"For now, it is a four-week break," said Ten Hag. "That’s already a danger for him because he’s now in a momentum and now it’s good. It’s a good [spell] in the season and we'll see how he is coming back and we have to manage that. Manage that with him, but when his attitude is good, I am certain he will have an impact.
“The danger is that four weeks, no games and lose focus, less investment. It is only when he stays in the same attitude, what he is working the last three, four, five weeks, then the process will keep going and his progress will keep going. If not, it goes the other way around.”
While the enforced hiatus has come at a bad time for a teenager who is flying, his stunning showings have illustrated the path is there for his Academy contemporaries and can act as an inspiration to some that they, too, can grasp any opportunity with both hands and make the huge step up. The manager has already stressed the door is open and the Cadiz camp could provide a fascinating glimpse into which youngsters are edging closer to more first-team involvement.
It is not only about youth, of course, as United have some experienced figures not participating in Qatar. The likes of David De Gea, Victor Lindelof, Scott McTominay and Anthony Martial will be determined to keep ticking over in this period, ready to continue putting the manager's tactics into practice and exerting such influence within the squad.
Jadon Sancho, having not had any game-time since the draw at Chelsea last month, should welcome the chance to regain full fitness and learn Erik's system and the same can be said of Anthony Elanga, whom the boss discussed after the win at Craven Cottage.
"I think he's doing well," commented Ten Hag. "He did well in the game but there are also some facts we have to work on with him, especially in his anticipation and in his proactivity. I think he makes huge progress in that but, if he wants to be a top player, then it has to come even more."
This is often the manager's mantra: that everybody, even the coaches and all the staff, must strive to get better each and every single day. The lengthy time together, almost like another pre-season, can help facilitate this.
And so to the World Cup itself. It is impossible to ignore the fact that it will demand the attention now the Premier League has come to a halt. We all hope the Reds involved impress and perform well for their countries even if, this time around, there will be a natural worry that any injuries picked up would have an immediate impact on our domestic schedule.
Some have already expressed concern that players could suffer burnout due to the tiring schedule – the Carabao Cup fourth round takes place a matter of days after the World Cup final – but Erik feels the rhythm of regular matches may not be a problem. It was very interesting that he told us before the Fulham game that a bigger cause to fret is with those who go away to the tournament but do not feature as much as they would like or expect, or even, as has happened in previous major tournaments, have to deal with a traumatic turn of events.
"I am most concerned for the players who are in the squad but don't play, because they don't have friendlies and they only have training for substitutes and they can drop off in fitness," he explained. "They can drop off in focus and maybe also they could come back in a different mental health space which is another question and concern. That is what we have to manage, so I am looking forward as it is what follows, but there could be consequences with the games.''
Many of the Reds at the tournament can expect to feature extensively for their respective nations, even if you never know how things are going to pan out. Heroes emerge and stake their claim, making history along the way.
It may surprise our fans to hear Lisandro Martinez is not a regular starter with Argentina, for instance, playing only two-and-a-half games during the South American qualifying campaign. The centre-back did enjoy a full 90 minutes in the friendly win over Honduras in September but was forced to watch from the bench when the Albiceleste lost to Italy in the UEFA Cup of Champions at Wembley last June.
So we'll see what transpires once the action gets under way in Qatar this weekend but, following the manager's lead, let's not worry about potential burn-out but hope our boys get the opportunity to strut their stuff on the biggest stage there is. Any individual success could only bode well for their return to Carrington and it won't be long before we're all eagerly anticipating domestic football again.
The opinions in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Manchester United Football Club.