One of the longstanding issues with Manchester United’s transfer window this past summer was the decision taken not to strengthen at either full-back position.
Now this isn’t a major issue on the right with Antonio Valencia unlikely to lose his place, yet the clear gap at left-back in Luke Shaw’s absence left many supporters questioning the decision not to bring in a player to fill that role.
The beginning of the 2017/18 season has been far better for Manchester United than anybody could have imagined, of the six matches played in both the Premier League and Champions League, five of them have seen victories with the only blot coming in a 2-2 draw away to Stoke City.
Daley Blind has been the first-choice for the left-back position for the majority of the campaign with Matteo Darmian a more than capable deputy. One of the negative aspects of playing either of the aforementioned individuals at left-back though, is that neither are particularly quick or adept at getting forward and supporting attacking moves.
The importance of the attacking full-back
Valencia, having been a natural right-winger earlier in his career, is most comfortable when he is going forward and has had to work excessively hard to improve the defensive side of his game, which under Jose Mourinho has been much better. Yet, when Shaw is not playing on the other side, a lot of United’s attacking moves come from the right hand side.
It is a disproportionate percentage and last term it made the Reds very predictable in attack. This season they have been helped by Nemanja Matic’s arrival facilitating movement into space by both Paul Pogba and Juan Mata, yet the first instinct is still to look for Valencia on his side.
This stems from neither Blind nor Darmian being effective in attack, that isn’t a knock against them, it is just fact. They are far better defenders than they are attackers and perhaps 15 years ago they would have been the best full-back pairing in the Premier League, but the game has moved on.
Manchester City didn’t part with upwards of £100 million on Danilo, Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy by mistake; it is because having energetic, attacking wing-backs is absolutely crucial to a team’s attacking identity in 2017.
Any team in England’s top four are likely to face the same tactic from their opposition from week-to-week. 10 defenders sat in a compact formation behind the ball looking to soak up pressure.
Now Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United team in the very early 1990’s did something similar but were uber-efficient on the counter-attack with Ryan Giggs, Lee Sharpe and Andrei Kanchelskis. In the current climate, teams don’t even set up to be a handful on the break; it is all about defensive positioning and not losing.
Manchester United often have to face such opposition and once they have figured out how to stop the Ecuadorian, their task of defending has often become much easier. Ashley Young’s recent return from a long injury lay-off gives Manchester United something different as a backup option.
Despite his rather negative reputation amongst sections of the club’s support, Young is an energetic presence who will follow his coach’s orders to the letter. He has started the last two matches against FC Basel and Everton, playing as right-back and left-back and he has been excellent.
Defensively there remain concerns, clearly, yet his quickness and natural instinct to attack made United a threat on two flanks against the Toffees on Sunday.
Vital buffer player in Shaw’s place
He will be a vital buffer player between this current period of United’s season and the time when Shaw is finally able to reclaim the left-back spot.
Fitness issues have prevented the former Southampton left-back from developing his game by any great amount since Louis van Gaal’s time with the club. His talent is obvious and the skill-set that he has at his disposal makes him a potentially invaluable asset to Jose Mourinho.
Danny Rose was a serious target for the Portuguese coach in the summer, the difficulties of dealing with Tottenham Hotspur so late in the window were however prohibitive. The reality is though, Shaw can do everything Rose can do and a little bit more, he just hasn’t been able to show it with any consistency because of injuries.
It would be naïve to say Shaw is a better player than Rose because we haven’t seen any evidence of it for the best part of 12 months, yet in terms of what they offer, it is roundabout the same.
Mourinho’s relationship with the 22-year-old hasn’t always been great but once he regains his match rhythm, he will have to be considered as the first-choice left-back.
Effective squad option
Until that time though, Young certainly seems the best option for the Old Trafford club if they want to keep pace with the ultra-attacking, free-scoring Manchester City at the top of the Premier League.
In matches against better opposition it may well be better to have a more defensive minded approach, but at Old Trafford it is clear United should be attacking teams.
In fairness this is something they have done this term, Young’s return simply gives Mourinho another way for his team to attack opponents, it is a positive one and it is likely the Portuguese coach will continue to select the former Watford midfielder as the evolution of his team continues.
Written by Chris Winterburn
Follow Chris on Twitter @cmwinterburn
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