The Tale of United's wingers - Are they good enough?
When United played the League Cup tie against Newcastle, there was something rather un-United-like about the teamsheet -there were no wingers in the starting line-up. Sir Alex Ferguson chose to employ the 4-4-2 diamond formation for the first time in I don’t know how many years. United have traditionally played with quick wingers who can cross well, ably supported by overlapping fullbacks. So what made Ferguson employ a formation that was considered an anathema to the club’s tradition until now? When asked this question, Ferguson replied that if United could master a different formation, it meant that he could keep the opposition manager guessing about United’s tactics till the very end, which could particularly be useful in big games like the Champions League final where Ferguson has been out-thought twice consecutively and has failed to produce a plan-B when in need.
But all of us doubted if United would ever employ such a tactic against some of the stronger clubs even now, simply because they are still far from mastering it and probably never will, due to a lack of resources. Our doubts were confirmed when United went back to playing with wingers against Chelsea even though many of the pundits had predicted that Ferguson would employ the diamond because it had proved to be fairly successful until then. And United did not play the diamond in any of the subsequent bigger games either. What rather makes sense as an answer to the initial question is that United just don’t have the level of wingers that they have traditionally had the luxury to possess. I really can’t see Ferguson having tried the diamond when the likes of Beckham or Cristiano Ronaldo were there at the club or when Giggs was at his prime playing as a winger, even though United’s tactics were predictable even back then.
So, let me start by talking about Antonio Valencia, United’s chosen successor to the coveted ‘NO.7 jersey’. Most United fans believe him to be United’s best winger and some sadly feel that he’s also one of the best in the world in his position. I don’t mean to be demeaning, but let me tell you, he’s just not good enough to be playing for United. I really doubt if any of those who believe that he’s one of the best in the world have any knowledge of football. Yes, he’s still fairly quick even though he seems to have lost a yard of pace or two after his most recent injury and yes, he’s a still a very good crosser of the ball. But other than that he’s got absolutely nothing, and is that all you expect of a United winger? He possesses zero dribbling skills and will struggle to beat even a third grade full-back if not for his pace. This coupled with the fact that he leaves his left-foot in the dressing-room when he comes on to the pitch means he is going to struggle against even an averagely smart full-back. His rather abysmal left-foot means he doesn’t have the option of cutting in and shooting/crossing and almost every full-back in the world has figured this out by now. So he’s effectively got only two options – either beat the defender for pace which is going to be difficult, especially with the defender anticipating it, or to just pass the ball back to the centre or full-back.
Remove Rafael and play a full-back who doesn’t feel comfortable coming forward very often and you will truly realize how bad Valencia is. What has been even more terrible to see from Valencia more recently is the amount of time he’s started spending on the ball. He inevitably waits for the full-back to get near him when he receives the ball and then tries to beat him for pace before he crosses and the result more often than not has been a blocked cross. This really has been the story of Antonio Valencia for the past few months and it’s come to a situation where the opposition is pretty comfortable to see the ball go to Valencia. The simple reason as to why Valencia was fairly successful the last couple of years is because he was slightly quicker and many of the defenders had not figured out his weakness then. He’s struggled against quality full-backs even before, like he did against Abidal in the CL final against Barcelona where he just couldn’t find any space on the wings and barely managed a cross or two in the entire match.
Now let’s move to Ashley Young, who has often been made the scapegoat whenever United’s wingplay has gone all wrong. He’s faced quite a lot of criticism and many of the United fans seem to be agreeing that he isn’t ‘United-class’. I partly agree with them but I still think he’s better than Valencia in more ways than one. To start with, he’s way more versatile than Valencia and I think he wouldn’t make a very bad No.10 even if we employ the diamond formation. He has often been employed behind the striker during his Aston Villa days and been pretty successful too, not to forget he’s not too bad when employed on the right wing either because he’s naturally right-footed. His finishing is very good for a midfielder and has a pretty lethal long shot that he curves in from the left hand side; a weapon that he uses lesser these days and incomprehensibly so. He is also very good at tracking back when United lose possession and he often does a way better job than even Evra while defending. In fact, I believe him to be one of the best in the world in this respect. Yes, just like Valencia, he has a pretty bad left foot which means he has to cut in more often than not from the left hand side before crossing. Yet, his left foot is not as bad as Valencia’s. His most recent assists for both England and United are in fact a product of his left foot. And even when he cuts in, he’s still got the option of going for the shot which actually keeps the defenders guessing. So, whether Ashley Young is good enough to play for United or not is still debatable, but to me, he does bring enough to United to try him out for atleast another year before they take a decision.
And now let’s move on to the curious case of Luis Nani, the chosen replacement for Cristiano Ronaldo and once touted by many to be one of the most talented young wingers in the world. And why not? He’s a good crosser, is very quick, has got excellent dribbling skills and can use both legs to good effect, making him useful on either wing. He doesn’t have a very bad long shot either which he can drive in from either foot. Yet, almost everybody feel that his time at United is over. And they have every reason to feel so. He’s been the model of inconsistency and is almost an eyesore to watch when he’s having a bad day. He still doesn’t show the maturity that is expected of a 26-year old who has spent his last 6 years at the club and often cuts a frustrated figure on the pitch when the team isn’t doing well. His decision-making is well and truly awful, and his attitude on the pitch is often extremely irritating from a supporter’s point of view. His ongoing contract saga and his recent training-ground bustup with reserve-team player Davide Petrucci haven’t done his image any good in the eyes of the gaffer either. Yet, he simply is a magician on his day and is more than capable of winning a match on his own when things are indeed swinging his way.
His stats aren’t too bad either – he had 10 goals and 14 assists last season compared to Valencia’s (who is invariably considered to have had a great season) 6 goals and 15 assists. He had the same 10 goals and 14 assists the season before that to Valencia’s 3 goals and 3 assists in the season, though this is primarily due to the latter being injured for a large part of that season. So, inspite of his many flaws, Nani could still become the player United want and need him to be, but must be dealt with a lot of patience and care. He’s just entering his prime years and it would be a pretty bad idea to let him go now, after being so patient with him for all these years just to see him join another club at his prime and terrorize defences there.
So on a whole, I believe United should continue playing to their strength and that is by using the width of the field. They do not possess the firepower to do so currently and hence should use the transfer window to correct this by buying a couple of wingers with atleast one of them being left-footed, because of the complete lack of left-footed wingers in the current squad. It is time-up for Valencia in my opinion (probably a controversial decision on my part) and both Young and Nani could be given one final chance to prove themselves at United, albeit for completely different reasons. Young has to prove himself to be an asset to the team as a player who can play wherever it is needed of him, be it on either of the wings or behind the striker. Nani on the other hand just has to translate his latent talent to performances on the pitch and while at the same time improve his attitude. More importantly, he has to sign a contract extension (there is no way United would take the risk of losing him for free one year later) and take it off everybody’s mind for good.
All of us want to see a Manchester United that bullies teams with their wing-play and causes nightmares to fullbacks rather than one that boasts of an alternative option to their traditional play. Yes, it would be nice to have an alternative option or a Plan-B as some people call it, but the priority should remain in trying to get better wingers to the club rather than buying an attacking midfielder to boost their options in the centre of midfield, just so that they can employ the diamond formation more often.
GLORY GLORY MAN UNITED!