If you've been with us for several years, you likely know that once upon a time when I was first discovering the sport, I was a bit of a Manchester United fan. Lured by the grace of David Beckham, the grit and grime of Roy Keane, and the understated brilliance of Ruud van Nistelrooy in front of goal, I couldn't resist the grandeur of the Theatre of Dreams. Unfortunately, I was too broke to afford all the long-sleeve Beckham kits I liked on eBay, but my desktop background was almost always Old Trafford or Beckham mid-free kick in the earliest days of the new millennium.
I've since moved past that phase of course, but you don't have to be a United fan to know that the Red Devils have fallen down the Premiership pecking order in recent seasons; a trend that looks even more disturbing since it's corresponded with Manchester City's rise to glory. (Although to be fair, United seems back on the rise.)
After taking over for Jose Mourinho in the winter of 2018, Ole Gunnar Solskjær has seemingly spent more time defending his job than plotting United's return to glory. After disappointing sixth-place finishes in both 2018 and 2019, Solskjær piloted United into third place last season, only the second time they've scaled such heights since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013.
And with 67 points from 33 matches, United is safely tucked into second place in the Premiership, trailing their city rivals by 10 points. While the league title is probably a bridge too far, United seems set for their best league finish (second place) since 2017-2018, when they finished as runners up to a Manchester City side that bagged an absurd 106 goals en route to a 100 point season.
Needless to say, Roma has the misfortune of facing the best team (on paper) remaining in the Europa League. But the days of van Nistelrooy, Beckham, and Keane are long gone, so which United players should keep us up at night for the next 48 hours and beyond?
Well, I'm glad you asked! We'll reach out to our United counterparts in the coming days but for now, I thought we'd take a quick look at which players are propelling United's rise back to glory.
With 16 goals and 11 assists in 31 Premier League appearances, the 26-year-old Portuguese midfielder is currently one of only five players in Europe's top five leagues to crack the double-double already (double-digit figures in goals and assists). Joining Fernandes on that exclusive list are Bayern Munich's Thomas Müller, Tottenham Hotspurs’ Harry Kane, Atletico's Fernando Llorente, and Celta Vigo's Iago Apsas. Memphis Depay, Romelu Lukaku, Andy Delort, and Son Heung-min are an assist away from joining that crew as well.
Granted, half of Fernandes’ league goals have come via the penalty spot, but he's still outpacing his xG totals rather easily. A natural right-footer, Fernandes was slow to acclimate to life in England after a 20 goal and 13 assist campaign for Sporting during the 2018-2019 season, but over the past year, Fernandes has been practically peerless.
Case in point:
As you can see, Fernandes ranks above the 90th percentile in a host of attacking categories, including shots, assists, xA, and shot-creating actions, as well as ranking quite high in several passing and team-based stats like progressive passes and presses.
And he does all this while putting nearly 65% of his shots on target and converting nearly 23% of his shots into goals. He also leads the club in assists, expected assists, key passes, passes into the penalty area, progressive passes while ranking second in passes into the final third, and crosses into the penalty area.
He's good is what we're getting at—really good.
Not to be outdone by Fernandes, Rashford has been a revelation this season, notching 10 league goals for the third straight season. In all competitions, the 23-year-old Rashford has bagged 20 goals and chipped in 12 assists. However, unlike Fernandes, Rashford hasn't padded his goal haul with penalty kicks—only one of his 20 goals has come from the spot.
Rashford, who has played all over midfield and even at striker for Solskjær, leads United in dribbles per match and ranks in the 85th percentile or higher among all midfielders in the following categories: dribbles, touches, progressive passes, shots, shots on target, shots on target %, passing %, passes into the penalty area...you get this picture. This kid is a do-it-all midfielder and he does it all quite well.
Oh, and as if all of that weren't impressive enough, Rashford has used his public platform for tremendous good, working tirelessly to raise awareness, funding, and enact reform in several key areas including homelessness, child hunger, poverty, and literacy outreach.
Rashford is an exemplary young man and the kind of player every team should bend over backward to sign and support, and if he scores a hattrick against Roma this week, he'll get one of these from me:
The 34-year-old Uruguayan is certainly no stranger to Roma fans, having haunted the Giallorossi for years during his days with Palermo and Napoli. After his PSG playing days came to an end in August, United beat several suitors to the punch to sign Cavani, inking him to a one-year deal with an option for a second.
While Cavani was slow to adjust to life in England, he's come to life in 2021, scoring seven goals in 16 appearances since New Year's Day, pushing his United total to 10 goals and two assists in all competitions (31 appearances).
While he's not scoring at the same alarming rate he did in his younger days, Cavani is still putting a healthy amount of shots on target and leads United in goals per shot and goals per shot on target, which is just a complicated way of saying that he can still pick and choose the right places and moments to shoot—he's also converting his shots into goals at a 23% clip. Still quite dangerous.
Another young Englishman, Wan-Bissaka, 23 like Rashford, is enjoying a breakout campaign at Old Trafford. In 47 appearances in all competitions (are we sure there isn't too much football on the calendar already?), Wan-Bissaka has scored two goals and chipped in three assists while pacing United in tackles attempted, tackles won, tackles in the defensive third, blocks, passes blocked, and interceptions while ranking third in clearances. He also ranks fourth in key passes and eighth in passes into the final third, so he's more than just a bulwark.
Roma will likely be on the back heel Thursday, and when they do venture forward, Wan-Bissaka won't exactly provide a warm welcome.
Shaw, a 25-year-old left-back, has been every bit the workhorse as Wan-Bissaka, collecting 41 appearances in all competitions this season. Across those 3,000 some odd minutes, Shaw has emerged as one of the best passers/playmakers in the Premiership, ranking in the top 20 in xA, key passes (where he's 5th overall), passes into the penalty area, crosses into the penalty area and progressive passes.
Shaw also ranks in the top 20 in shot-creating actions and goal-creating actions and has performed similarly well in possession statistics, including progressive distance, progressive carries, and carries into the final third.
Shaw is a well-rounded attacking full-back that influences the game just as much through passing as he does with the ball at this feet and since he does most of his work down the left, he'll present quite the headache for Rick Karsdorp Thursday at Old Trafford.
Several weeks ago, we felt more confident in Roma's chance of pushing past Manchester United to reach the Europa League finale, but given the Giallorossi's sputtering fortunes in Serie A, their chances of upsetting United seem remotely thin. The names and faces on this list are just a handful (hello, Paul Pogba) of players from a deep and talented squad that is sure to give Paulo Fonseca's crew fits over the next week.
The odds are stacked against them, but if Roma can somehow neutralize Fernandes and Rashford, then maybe—just maybe—an upset might be in the cards.