Christian Eriksen faces a race against time to make a meaningful contribution to the remainder of Manchester United's season after the club confirmed he will be out until late April or early May with an ankle injury.
Eriksen was forced out of the FA Cup fourth round win over Reading after a heavy tackle by striker Andy Carroll and initial scans have since confirmed a timescale for recovery that will keep the Danish midfielder out for the vast majority of the run in. United face Chelsea and Tottenham in the Premier League on April 22 and 25 respectively, after that they will have five games left that could decide whether Erik ten Hag's side are successful in qualifying for the Champions League.
"While investigations are continuing, initial assessments indicate that Eriksen is likely to be out until late April or early May," said a United statement. "The 30-year-old's absence will be a big disappointment to manager Erik ten Hag and fans, given the consistency of his performances throughout the season so far, making 31 appearances since arriving at Old Trafford. However, there is hope that Christian can return in time to play a role in the final stages of the campaign."
Eriksen is among Ten Hag's most valued players with only David de Gea, Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford having played more Premier League minutes. His partnership with Casemiro in deep midfield has afforded United a controlling presence in games that they had sorely lacked before both veterans arrived in the summer; Eriksen's seven top flight assists are also three more than anyone else in a United shirt.
The transfer market could provide succour for United before it closes at 6 p.m. ET on Tuesday, but they have been reluctant to commit money in January that would compromise their ability to do deals in the summer, and Ten Hag indicated that Eriksen's 11th hour injury would not change that.
"On deadline day it's difficult," he said in his press conference ahead of the EFL Cup semifinal second leg against Nottingham Forest. "You can't make policy on such bad injuries but we have players in the midfield department – good players; we have players who can fill the gap.
"I think you can never fill that [gap in the same way] because every player has his own characteristics and identity. Another player will always fill it in a different way but it doesn't mean you have to be less successful. It's quite clear Christian Eriksen brings top quality to our squad and he has some specifics that are hard to replace – such as his impact in the final third with his final ball."
Ten Hag's most logical options in central midfield without Eriksen would be Fred, who Ten Hag was at pains to note plays alongside Casemiro for Brazil, and Scott McTominay, neither of whom are particularly at ease stamping their authority on the possession game. Fernandes dropping deep would be an option but would necessitate the Portugal playmaker adjusting his approach away from the more ambitious (or scattergun) passes he tends to play. Kobbie Mainoo made a bright cameo against Reading, completing all 25 of his passes, but that was just his second senior appearance.