While Manchester United scratched around in the transfer market seemingly willing to pay £5 million less than the asking price for just about every midfielder in Europe, manager David Moyes could be forgiven for focusing his efforts on what he already has rather than what he potentially could have had.
For as much as United ran out comfortable comfortable league winners last season, there was one area where they uncharacteristically struggled: the wings.
Under Sir Alex Ferguson, width was a staple of United’s attacking prowess. Be it through Ryan Giggs’ skill to beat a man, Beckham’s uncanny knack of landing a cross on a sixpence or Cristiano Ronaldo’s ability to score from just about anywhere, visiting full-backs have always been in for a torrid time at Old Trafford.
Last year, however, Fergie’s United consistently failed to deliver from the flanks.
The previous year's player of the season, Antonio Valencia, seemed out of sorts for much of the season, often unwilling to run at his full-back and never consistently producing the type of delivery that had earned him his accolades a year earlier.
Nani, meanwhile, started the season as if he’d developed a case of the yips and forgotten how to play football, only ever producing anything approaching quality in far too sparse glimpses while Ashley Young failed to kick on from a reasonable first season. Suffering with injury and blighted by inconsistency, he became a source of frustration for the Old Trafford crowds.
So it was often left to Giggs, Danny Welbeck or Shinji Kagawa to play from the left and operate as more of an inside forward with Patrice Evra providing the genuine width from left-back without being able to produce the kind of final ball you’d want from a winger.
It’s important to note the impact of Robin van Persie in all of this. It isn’t just goals the Dutchman has brought to United, he’s also subtly changed the way the Red Devils play. Whereas width was once the order of the day, Van Persie’s willingness and ability to receive the ball in tight areas and build attacks through the centre has made for a more direct approach, especially when added to the constant opportunity for the diagonal ball over the top created by his exceptional movement along the opponent’s backline.
Such great movement led to the goal against Swansea and last year’s memorable strike against Aston Villa to name but two examples.
Quality is still required in wide areas though as the ability to stretch the opposition is crucial when trying to break teams down, especially at home against a stubborn defence. If Moyes can get improvement down the flanks then United stand a great chance of defending their title despite a disappointing transfer window.
With the arrival of Marouane Fellaini, it would appear Moyes will play a 4-2-3-1 system opting for two deep lying midfielders with the big Belgian playing alongside Michael Carrick with a number 10 playing off the main striker and two wide options. The two sitting midfielders would give further license for United’s full-backs to get forward allowing the wide players to come inside and get more involved in the build-up play.
On the right, United favour a more traditional winger who hugs the touchline, drives at defenders and delivers quality into the box. The addition of Wilfried Zaha has brought some much needed energy and trickery to United and the former Crystal Palace man certainly impressed during pre-season with his ability to beat a man and attack the byline.
Zaha’s arrival may have woken up the seemingly dormant Valencia as the Ecuadorian seemed back to his old self against Chelsea, carrying the ball at speed and putting himself about all over the pitch. His move back to the number 25 shirt may also remove the pressure of his shoulders and allow him to perform better.
From the left, there is a tendency to favour a more continental inside forward who will drift off of the flank or look to cut inside. However, the failure to land either Leighton Baines or Fabio Coentrao has hampered Moyes’ plans to strengthen the left-hand side by providing a greater cutting edge and allowing more freedom for the left-sided attacker to roam from the flank.
Nani and Young are the more typical wing options, though both look to come inside wherever possible. Nani looked lively in his only real pre-season outing before getting injured and Moyes looks set to give the Portuguese a fair crack of the whip after selecting him for the bench ahead of Kagawa in the 1-0 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield on Sunday.
There’s no doubt the enigmatic winger can be a match winner on his day and there are reports a new contract has been agreed with Nani’s current deal due to expire at the end of the current campaign.
Young similarly missed most of the pre-season schedule but has been part of Moyes’ early plans despite a lack of match fitness, starting against Liverpool with Valencia relegated to the bench. It was another frustrating afternoon for the England man, who eventually made way for Nani but Moyes certainly seems keen on Young’s crossing ability which can be devastating when cutting back on to his right foot from the left flank.
Kagawa saw his first season hampered by injury and despite reports from former coach Jurgen Klopp that seeing him play from the left moves him to tears, it’s definitely a role the Japanese international could perform for United with devastating effect as he did against Norwich last term, coming inside and exchanging positions with Wayne Rooney to grab a superb hat-trick. Kagawa would have benefited from Baines' arrival more than anyone as they would have looked to create a partnership similar to the one the Evertonian currently has with Steven Pienaar at Goodison Park.
Welbeck has started the season well and he certainly provides energy and a willingness to work back for the team. There is doubt over his delivery, though, and in truth he isn’t a wide player but is a more than able deputy if required. The one thing Welbeck certainly needs to improve is attacking the far post when the ball comes in from the right.
Giggs can still provide service with often devastating delivery and is frequently deployed in wide areas late in games to provide a genuine crossing option when a goal is needed. Otherwise, the Welsh legend looks to come inside and link with the forward and often relies on others to help support his defensive work as Welbeck did excellently against Swansea on the opening day of the season.
There’s certainly a wealth of options for the new Manchester United manager to consider and, if he can generate an improvement down the wings, it will do the champions' title defence no harm at all as well as satisfying the Old Trafford crowds who love nothing more than the sight of a winger in full flow.
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