Manchester United started their 2019-20 Europa League campaign on Thursday night, with a laboured win over Kazakhstani side Astana at Old Trafford.
It signalled the beginning of a European journey that could see United play 15 games between now and May, should they progress to the final in Poland.
It is a competition notorious for its detrimental effect on club’s league form – Wolves are a current example, as they have endured a torrid start to the season as they try to cope with the extra games in Europe.
Burnley also suffered from their continental adventures last season, finishing a lowly 15th in the league – a disappointment by their recent standards.
On that premise, is the Europa League going to have any benefit to United? Or will it simply be a hindrance to their already shaky league form?
When United won the Europa League in 2017 under Jose Mourinho, they had the added incentive that the club had never won the competition in their history.
With that added impetus now expired, United players and fans alike must find a different source of motivation for winning matches on Thursday evenings.
This season, there is no doubt that the priority for manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is improving on the 6th place finish in the Premier League.
In 2017, Mourinho sacrificed the clubs league form and successfully gambled on reaching the Champions League through winning the Europa League, rather than through a top-four finish.
Solskjaer knows if he were to take a similar stance, his job would be at risk – United must break back into the Champions League spots this term.
So, if United can’t invest all their resources into the competition, what’s the other option?
On Thursday, Solskjaer made nine changes to his starting eleven, including starts for four academy graduates; Axel Tuanzebe, Mason Greenwood, Angel Gomes and Taith Chong.
If United won’t risk naming a full-strength side in mid-week, perhaps the best alternative is using the competition for developing their vastly talented youth players.
All four of the previously mentioned players have struggled for game time in the league this season, with just a handful of substitute appearances between them.
But perhaps with United looking to rotate players in the Europa League, the competition can be seen as the next step up from the U23’s – rather than making the more sizeable leap straight to the Premier League.
The teams in United’s group aren’t as strong as Premier League clubs in terms of footballing ability, but they will offer physicality and experience that isn’t present in U23 games.
With the added challenge of playing in front of big crowds, it will put United’s young players under the pressure that is needed for them to develop.
It begs the question; if United weren’t competing in the Europa League this season, would their youth talent get enough minutes?
The only other occasion it seems Solskjaer would risk the youngsters is in the EFL Cup, which doesn’t come about often enough to have a serious impact on player development.
Perhaps then the Europa League should be seen as a blessing in disguise for United – obviously, their fans would prefer to compete in the Champions League, but it is a perfect opportunity to offer their gifted young players a chance to prove themselves.
If United didn’t have the Europa League, players such as Greenwood and Gomes may have been tempted to look elsewhere for game time, which would be a disaster for United’s fabled youth system and Solskjaer’s long term plan.
United fans should have no complaints about the Europa League then, should Solskjaer continue to field their next generation of talent – their league form won’t be hindered, but young players get game time.
It’s a win-win, especially if United manage to achieve a top-four finish as a result.
United’s success in the Europa League won’t define their season by any means, but perhaps winning the competition again could be the icing on the cake.