Manchester United’s lack of width has made them all-too-predictable this season, writes Stephen Vaughan.
Balance is one of the most undervalued and important aspects of modern football. Without exception, all of the great players have it. It’s equally as evident when it comes to the great teams, but it’s a quality sorely lacking from Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United.
Mourinho picks players he trusts; those he trusts not to make silly mistakes, not to take unnecessary risks, not to take risks at all in dangerous situations.
This is undeniably his primary concern when selecting his first eleven, as the Portiuguese leaves little, if any, emphasis upon fielding a balanced team.
The most obvious example of this is Manchester United’s left side.
Throughout the course of 90 minutes, United’s left side can be patrolled by Ashley Young, Luke Shaw, Paul Pogba, Alexis Sanchez, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford. Shaw, who has only made seven starts this season, is the only left-footed player on that list.
Young, Pogba, Sanchez, Martial and Rashford all tend to cut back onto their right foot to cross the ball.
Young, Pogba and Sanchez usually do it from a deep position around the corner of the penalty box, while Rashford and Martial sometimes run their marker on the outside before inverting back onto their stronger right foot to pick out a man.
Either way, the impetus of the attack is lost.
The split second it takes is enough for the opposition’s defender to get set to defend the ball or step out and play the onrushing attackers offside.
Not that it’s an ineffective method of attack. Look at Marouane Felliani’s winning goal against Arsenal, an in-swinging Martial cross from deep, met first time at the back post.
However, if five out of six players who occupy United’s left side cut inside to deliver the ball, it becomes hugely predictable.
It’s not as if United’s right side compensates for the imbalance. On that side it’s been one from Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata and the recently-departed Henrikh Mkhitaryan. All three cut inside leaving the ever-present Antonio Valencia to provide the team’s only natural width and the Ecuadorian is hardly renowned for his crossing.
Romelu Lukaku has had a rough ride at times this season but with so few out-swinging balls to attack, meat and drink for a striker of his physical capabilities, he’s done well to notch over 25 goals from such predictable wide deliveries.
Inverted wingers have been around for over a decade. There are those that score a hatful of goals like Cristiano Ronaldo, Mo Salah and Lionel Messi but they are only wingers in name.
Realistically, they are strikers that start from a wide, withdrawn position in order to cut inside onto their stronger foot and score much like Thierry Henry, only he wasn’t coined an inverted winger because we didn’t know such a thing existed.
None of these players were known for their crossing.
In Sanchez, Rashford, and Martial, United have three players who could potentially play the goal-scoring inverted winger role. Unfortunately, they’re all right footed and vying for the same left-side position.
Having arrived to such fanfare Sanchez seems to have the position nailed down. With neither Rashford nor Martial showing any proclivity to get around the outside and cross the ball while playing on the rightm it seems painstakingly obvious that Mourinho needs to bring in at least one left footed attacker.
Juan Mata is the only one in the senior squad, excluding Lukaku who will remain central, but the Spaniard lacks any kind of pace.
Mourinho was open about his targeting of Inter Milan’s Ivan Perisic last summer and the Croat would have been the ideal solution. Strong, pacey, direct and equally adept at providing width on the left or cutting in from the right.
Are there any other candidates for the role this summer?
Mourinho has already insisted United won’t sign another attacker this summer. If his side are to make the same strides of improvement they made on last season, they need to add another dimension to their attack.
Barring outstanding seasons from Lukaku and Sanchez, coupled with major improvements from Rashford and Martial, it’s difficult to see another way from them to do it.
Expect a busy summer at Old Trafford, especially for footballers of the left-footed variance.