Manchester United Have A Width Problem
Manchester United’s flying start to the season ran into some turbulence in the form of Mark Hughes’ Stoke City at the weekend. Still unbeaten, Jose Mourinho’s side would nonetheless have been thoroughly disappointed by the result in the Potteries. More worrying than the result, though, was the drop off in performance levels.
The first concerned eyebrows would have been raised by the starting XI. Ander Herrera is very popular among United’s support, and seeing him back in the line-up is never terrible news, but the fact that Mourinho was minded to replace Juan Mata with his friend and replace Daley Blind with Matteo Darmian spoke of a slight change in mindset. The 4-2-3-1 which has been so effective so far was replaced by a 4-3-3, a formation which many have suggested would get the best out of Paul Pogba but which instead meant he was too often ahead of the ball, rather than on it. Getting Pogba nearer the goal might seem like a worthwhile goal, but he is a midfielder in the truest sense. His ability to pick a pass from deep might just be the sharpest arrow in his packed quiver.
Of course, ultimately United were not undone by tactics but by appalling defending. Having sung Phil Jones’ praise last week, it seems appropriate to point out that he was absolutely terrible for both Stoke’s goals.
But there was a tactical problem during the game, one which had also reared its head against Leicester City, though United had the wherewithal to overcome it there. They have a problem with width. They played Henrikh Mkhitaryan on the right and Marcus Rashford on the left, but the same tendency to cut or drift inside is present when Anthony Martial or Juan Mata play in those spots. This puts tremendous onus on the full-backs to support their attack. All over the park, United are blessed with genuine, sometimes best-in-class quality, but full-back is the blindingly obvious exception to that rule. Now, Luke Shaw is waiting in the wings to play solve this problem on the left-wing but the right flank has no obvious solution.
Antonio Valencia had a fine season last time out and was second in the voting for fans’ player of the year, neck-and-neck with Herrera until the last day of the ballot. At his best he is an asset. His defending has improved massively under Mourinho, and when he is confident he can knock the ball past his opposite number like they are not there. When he is confident his crossing strays from its stereotype—smashing the ball into the full-backs shins when trying to blast it across the six yard box—and he has even been known to float a delicate ball into the back post . But when his confidence drops he’s a mess, always looking for an easy pass to a teammate.
He will make the run looking for space in which to be found but by the end of the Stoke game his body language was screaming “please don’t give me this ball back” every time he made a pass. And that was understandable given none of the six crosses he attempted found a man. Against Leicester he found a United player with two out of 10 attempts, not a terrible ratio, but frustrating nonetheless given how often he was United’s first port-of-call in attack. Against West Ham and Swansea it is notable that he was only required to try two in each game, as United’s forwards were not forced to look wide for space.
If football really is a game in which O-Ring theory applies—the notion that the team is more defined by the weakness of its weakest part rather than the strength of its strongest parts—then Mourinho will need to do something about the flanks. He tried in the transfer window, of course.
For the most part the quality that exists elsewhere in the team will make up for the weakness. A side note about the Stoke game was that United stopped using a tactic which has brought them tremendous joy so far this season—knocking set pieces into the box. They took corner after corner short to no avail, even more bizarre when you consider they made the breakthrough from a more traditional corner in that game too.
Of course, when Shaw comes back, if he is anywhere close to his best, the big picture will dramatically change, as there will automatically be more dynamism and threat on the left-flank.
But the right is still a big problem and building Valencia’s confidence should be at the top of Mourinho’s agenda. Without it, there is a chance the Red Devils’ very fancy attack will be seriously compromised by the weakest link in its expensively assembled chain.