Anthony Martial has had an impressive pre-season but is set to miss the season opener after suffering a minor hamstring problem, while Cristiano Ronaldo has played only 45 minutes this summer after missing United’s tour of Thailand and Australia owing to family reasons.
Plus, after the Portugal international expressed a desire to leave the club and then left Old Trafford early during the draw against Rayo Vallecano last week, does he merit a place in the starting line-up anyway? Or should Ten Hag attempt to send a message by leaving the 37-year-old on the bench?
With differing opinions over many aspects of the team — particularly who should start at left-back, alongside Harry Maguire in central defence and how Ten Hag should set his team up in attack — The Athletic’s writers have picked their starting XIs for the Brighton match.
Let them know what you would do in the comments below…
Laurie Whitwell: Play Elanga up front
Starting Ronaldo may be the easiest option for several reasons. He is by far Manchester United’s most potent player — scoring a brilliant goal against Brighton last season among his total of 24 — and putting him in the line-up would defuse any eruptions that may come from benching him.
But Ten Hag is trying to instill direction and authority, and bringing Ronaldo straight back into the team after his summer exit strategy would undermine those attempts. Can a consequence of “unacceptable” behaviour, as Ten Hag called Ronaldo leaving before the final whistle against Rayo Vallecano, really be a starting place in the very next game? Talks between the two could ease that tension, of course, so perhaps that would provide a route to his selection.
If not, Ten Hag’s options are limited. United’s hesitation in strengthening the attack is biting.
Starting Anthony Elanga up top might be the best solution. He would carry out Ten Hag’s pressing requirements with total commitment and is match sharp after a full pre-season.
Leaving Marcus Rashford on the left, where he has looked something of his old self this summer, playing Bruno Fernandes as the No 10 and Jadon Sancho on the right would continue the rhythm built up during the recent friendlies — an aspect Ten Hag seemed to prioritise.
Alejandro Garnacho is exciting but too raw to start in an important game right now, especially as he did not feature at all in Thailand and Australia. Luke Shaw, recovered from illness, should start due to his experience but Tyrell Malacia has looked good so is a worthy alternative.
Lisandro Martinez needs easing into Premier League life, so Victor Lindelof is Harry Maguire’s partner. Raphael Varane’s fitness issues are a consideration there. Christian Eriksen off the bench to deliver a killer corner onto Ronaldo’s head?
Whitwell’s XI (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Dalot, Maguire, Lindelof, Shaw; McTominay, Fred; Sancho, Fernandes, Rashford; Elanga
Carl Anka: Rashford can lead the line backed by three quality playmakers
Starting Ronaldo on Sunday would weaken Ten Hag’s authority at a time when he still needs buy-in from fans, players and pundits. The 37-year-old has always been ultra-professional in regards to his fitness, but he is likely a few weeks off match sharpness and could benefit from further training sessions and more time to learn Ten Hag’s methods.
“He is not on the level of the rest of the squad because he missed a lot of weeks. But he needs games and he needs training, a lot,” Ten Hag said before Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Rayo Vallecano.
That leaves Rashford as your most experienced striking option. His best performances as a central striker typically see him backed by two playmakers who can make the sort of passes that better dictate his runs in behind defenders.
Eriksen’s arrival means United can field three quality goal creators in the three of Ten Hag’s preferred 4-2-3-1. The Dane has the passing nous and experience to operate as a wide playmaker on the left with Fernandes central and Sancho retaining his position on the right. (I am loath to move Sancho from the right as the drop-off in quality between him and other suitors for the role is a little frightening.)
I think Malacia’s positional play, reading when is the best time to underlap or overlap his wide man, makes him a better left-back choice for Eriksen than Shaw.
Anka’s XI (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Dalot, Martinez, Maguire, Malacia; Fred, McTominay; Sancho, Fernandes, Eriksen; Rashford
Adam Crafton: Use Fernandes as a false nine
It is not ideal for Ronaldo to start this game after missing the club’s pre-season tour and leaving before the full 90 minutes was up against Rayo Vallecano.
Ten Hag has spoken of concerns about Ronaldo’s fitness, which may be based on internal data, but he is one of the world’s most well-conditioned players and would probably be fine to start the match. So this is, in reality, a decision about discipline, authority and unity.
Ten Hag needs to give United supporters a window into his style of play and reveal a team that is clearly committed towards a common goal. As such, I would leave Ronaldo out of the starting XI against Brighton.
It would be a soap opera in itself to have cameras panning to the substitutes’ bench, yet it would be a polemic if he was left out of the squad altogether! So good luck Erik, and welcome to Old Trafford.
I would personally go for Fernandes as a false nine, dropping deep to add an extra body in midfield at times, with Sancho and Rashford operating as split strikers. In midfield, this would also mean a competitive debut for Eriksen.
The other big question mark is centre-back, where Varane has had a disrupted pre-season through injury and Martinez is still bedding in, so it may be a wearily familiar back five and holding midfield pair for United supporters.
Anyway, Ronaldo will probably start, score and make me look even more stupid than usual.
Crafton’s XI (4-3-3): De Gea; Dalot, Lindelof, Maguire, Shaw; McTominay, Fred, Eriksen; Sancho, Fernandes, Rashford
Dan Sheldon: Ten Hag should start Ronaldo to get his United reign off to a flier
Shoot me down, but Ronaldo remains Manchester United’s biggest goal threat and the alternatives are not up to his standard. Yes, he has stated his desire to leave the club and heading home before the final whistle was blown against Rayo Vallecano was a poor decision. But I would argue the 37-year-old boosts Ten Hag’s chances of winning his first Premier League game in charge — and that is all that matters, right?
It will ultimately come down to whether the United manager wants his authority to be brought into question and he may feel including Ronaldo will dent the discipline he is trying to create within the squad. But I would put Ronaldo at the spear of a 4-2-3-1 and utilise Sancho and Rashford on the wings, with Fernandes playing a central role.
The next debate will centre on who should start in defence, but Martinez is already accustomed to Ten Hag’s way of playing and should fit in seamlessly. I’d also go for Shaw over Malacia for now.
Sheldon’s XI (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Dalot, Martinez, Maguire, Shaw; McTominay, Fred; Sancho, Fernandes, Rashford; Ronaldo
(Top photo: Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)