With the downturn in the fortunes of England’s biggest club many fans argue over the main reasons for the abject failure of the team to sustain a title challenge this season.
Arsene Wenger has stated that any team which is 10 points or more adrift is out of the title race and, although it could be argued that he is out of touch in terms of knowing what it takes to win a title, the point remains that Manchester United are staring into the abyss.
Even the most ardently positive fan would be hard pushed to retain the belief we can still challenge this year. When running through the plethora of reasons I believe that we have struggled recently, the lack of width and true wingers, ranks highly amongst them so that is the issue I will be tackling in this article.
Some readers will be fortunate enough to remember the great wingers of the last 30 years or so whom we had to count on (Beckham, Giggs, Ronaldo and Kanchelskis) to name but a few. These players have added quality in the wide position which has produced many incredible crosses and goals from these areas.
Is there anybody currently at the club who could produce anything like the dazzling, jinking run and goal that Giggs scored in the 1999 FA Cup Semi Final against Arsenal? Is there anybody that can put the ball on a plate for strikers the way Beckham used to do innumerable times? Is there anybody that can score a tonne of goals for us and win us titles like Ronaldo did? The answer to these questions is indubitably a resounding no.
At the club currently the dearth of true wing talent is having a negative impact on our season for many reasons. Firstly, we are pigeonholing players into foreign positions such as Marcus Rashford, who looks petrified, like the chubby kid in school who has been told to play in goal.
Rashford is not the player, Rooney was at the same age, in my opinion, he is not as technically gifted so cannot perform the wing role as well as Rooney did on occasion for Ronaldo. His crossing ability is minimal and he looks leaden footed when asked to perform this role.
Secondly, players such as Jesse Lingard are tasked with performing this job as it is supposedly their natural position. Whilst many people will clamour that he is a youth product and deserves his chance to play the fact remains that he is not United quality as a winger. His end product is simply not good enough, against West Ham; he had more space and time than other players in dangerous positions more often simply because West Ham knew that he would offer so little actual dangerous or productive play.
Thirdly, players who were bought for large sums of money have yet to perform in these areas. A key example of this is Memphis Depay, who looks disinterested and disenfranchised with the aspect of working his way into the team, preferring instead to add to his pocket rather than trying to force a look in.
Barcelona don’t play with true wingers, Real Madrid don’t play with true wingers, you may be thinking so why should we? The answer is twofold.
Firstly, that we have Zlatan Ibrahimovic up front. The big Swede is 6ft 5 inches and unlike another tall footballer, Peter Crouch, who can’t head to save his life, has a great aerial presence as shown through his header for example against Leicester where he towered above Wes Morgan to smash it home with his dome. Yes, Zlatan is also fantastic with his feet, an extremely skilful, cultured and classy footballer but his lack of pace means he cannot run in behind a defence the way a Marcus Rashford or Anthony Martial can.
Secondly, as was evidenced over the last few home games we are dominating possession and teams are defending resolutely with many men behind the ball. Against West Ham, Pogba produced a sumptuous cross for Zlatan’s head and a superb goal was scored. Yet did any winger try and deliver any crosses of this ilk to recreate this successful formula? No they didn’t, in some cases through lack of skill required and others, more damningly, through lack of effort, passion and desire.
If a team pack the middle of the park and make it difficult to break through the answer is to use the flanks to get the defence turned and facing their own goal. This is always the trickiest position for a defender knowing that the situation is more dangerous, particularly if a winger can place the ball in the corridor of uncertainty between the goalkeeper and his back line.
As I have already alluded to the answer to this problem is not one that presents itself as an easily rectifiable one. Throwing money at the problem hasn’t always worked as evidenced through Memphis Depay, whom I mentioned earlier and more pertinently Angel Di Maria. Until this summer with Pogba, Di Maria was our most expensive signing as a club and many of us thought the answer to our prayers with his tricky and incisive wing play, and ability to cross the ball correctly.
Anybody who watched his Man of the Match performance in the 2013-14 Champions League Final against Atletico Madrid can testify that we thought we were getting an incredible “Galactico” player.
Sadly, despite an amazing individual goal against Leicester in the early part of the season, Di Maria was phased out and left the following year to join Paris St Germain where his goal, assist and play level has gone up again considerably.
Who then in world football to buy who would not seem a risk and would most likely replace the current square pegs we have in the wing position round holes?
Another point to consider is also what top player would leave his side for another team who can’t even be certain of Champions League qualification at the end of this season. I will now outline two plausible candidates who beg consideration.
Firstly, we have the venerable Marco Reus of Borussia Dortmund who is rumoured to be the next Borussia star player to leave next summer. Reus can play on both wings and is lethal on both, and if Henrikh Mkhitaryan is on the other wing they will already have a great understanding from their playing days together.
He is my own pick for someone who I feel is obtainable and top quality. Another candidate who we might obtain is Willian who has been frozen out of Chelsea by Conte. He is a top quality winger who at 28 is at his peak, quick and effective at dribbling and crossing he can also take an excellent free kick.
It is worth remembering that Chelsea sold us Mata, who has been a revelation, so the transfer possibilities are there if the fee and package is right. You, dear reader, probably have your own idea on a possible transfer you would like to see happen to ameliorate our winger quandary but is this best way to deal with the issue?
In conclusion, there is clearly food for thought on the best way to turn Manchester United back into the vibrant, free scoring side that we once were.
As I have outlined today there needs to be some culpability from the wingers already in the squad and some improvement in this area needs to be a priority, whether this is from somehow motivating talents such as Depay or trawling the transfer market to pick up acquisitions like Reus.
It is worth remembering that players may have the best of intentions but their talent is not up to it such as Lingard.
As Nani said when Ronaldo left that he would step up to the plate and try and fill the void created by his absence, it is sometimes a case of, with the current United squad, that we have replaced Ferrari wingers with push bike wingers.
By George Kyle