Manchester United position preview: wingers

Park Ji-sung is manager Sir Alex Ferguson's tactical swiss-army knife

Traditionally, and especially during the reign of manager Sir Alex Ferguson, one of the primary creative threats for Manchester United has constantly come from their wingers. It is down the flanks where the likes of Ryan Giggs and David Beckham tore apart the opposition a decade ago. Current players, such as Nani, Antonio Valencia, Park Ji-sung, and the newly acquired Ashley Young will look to continue this tradition during the upcoming season. It is a group of players that provide both tremendous quality and depth while each also offers up a uniquely different skillset. In addition to this quartet, Giggs is still more than capable of marauding down the flanks and the youngsters Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley also showed competency out wide last season while out on loan to Sunderland and Wigan Athletic, respecitively. 

Here is a table that provides relevant statistics for each winger from last season's Premier League action (via Opta):

PREM

App

Goals

Asst

Shots per gm

Accurate Crossed per gm

Key Passes per game

Pass Acc %

SuccessDribbles per gm

Tackles per gm

INT per gm

Nani

31(2)

9

14

3.1

2.3

2.5

80%

2.5

1.6

1.1

Park

13(2)

5

3

0.7

0.3

1.1

86%

0.5

2.3

1.1

Valencia

8(2)

1

2

0.3

2.1

2.4

86%

1.5

2.0

1.0

Young

34

7

10

2.1

2.2

2.3

72%

0.5

0.9

1.0

Giggs

19(6)

2

6

0.8

1.8

2.4

73%

1.4

1.4

0.9

Champions League statistical table and individual player previews after the jump...

UCL

App

Goals

Asst

Shots per gm

Accurate Crossed per gm

Key Passes per game

Pass Acc %

SuccessDribbles per gm

Tackles per gm

INT per gm

Nani

9(3)

1

0

1.3

1.0

0.9

77%

1.9

1.4

1.3

Park

8(1)

1

1

0.6

0.1

0.6

83%

0.6

2.6

3.6

Valencia

5(2(

1

1

0.4

1.1

1.4

78%

0.9

1.4

1.3

Young

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

Giggs

6(2)

1

5

0.9

0.9

2.0

78%

0.4

1.3

1.5

 

NANI

The Portuguese winger joined United from Sporting CP during the summer of 2007 with high expectations after a €25.5 million fee. After unfair comparisons to compatriot Cristiano Ronaldo and a lack of consistency in his early United career, Nani began to step up in early 2010 - most notably in a brilliant performance versus Arsenal FC at the Emirates.

It was finally during the 2010-11 season when he had his breakthrough - he was simply spectacular during league play. Despite having lost his starting spot to Valencia for the run-in, it was Nani who was main creative force that kept United afloat in the title race during Fall and Winter months. His impressive haul of 9 goals and 14 assists in league play can surely attest to his success, but a closer look at some other numbers provides more detailed information about his play.

The 24-year-old is capable of playing effectively on either flank, but it is on the right side where he is more of a threat. He can surge down the touchline and whip in crosses with his stronger right foot - his 2.3 successful crosses a match ranked 2nd in the Prem last season and his 24% crossing accuracy ranked 1st. Alternatively, he can cut in onto his left foot and fire at goal - which his impressive 9 goals (mostly from his left boot) and 3.1 shots per game displays (vs Manchester City at Old Trafford). His 2.5 successful dribbles per game, which raned 2nd in the Prem, also exhibits his trickery -- all of this added up in an incredibly dynamic and dangerous attacker from the flank. 

Nani has been accused of being wasteful at times with his passing. His 80% passing accuracy hints at this but this is also due to his tendency to attempt more incisive passes. His 2.5 key passes per game is very good and it is even more impressive when you consider that it is comparable to creative players from other sides that play through the center of the park. The other criticism of Nani in the past was for his defense. His tactical awareness has improved as he's gained experience - he tracks back to defend much better now and his 1.6 tackles per game and 1.1 interceptions per game displays competency. 

For the upcoming season, Nani faces stiff competition from Valencia, Park, and Young on the flanks. Fergie has already stated that he will get the start for the opener away at West Bromwich Albion. If Nani exhibits the form of his fabulous preseason, he will be difficult to displace on the right flank - especially against inferior sides where his ability can be overwhelming. It is in the big games, whether that be in Europe or domestically, where the Portuguese likely faces competition as first-choice. He will need to continue improving his tactical awareness to fend off Valencia and Park. 

PARK JI-SUNG

After impressive displays for PSV Eindhoven during Champions League play, Fergie brought over the Korean in 2005 for a reported £4 million fee. There was initial skepticism that Park was brought in to sell shirts in Korea. However, the industrious midfielder has since gone on to earn the admiration of supporters and teammates with his committed and quality performances - most notably during United's biggest matches, both domestically and abroad in Europe. 

It was during last season's run-in where the 30-year-old was arguably in the form of his life. Park has been respected over the past few seasons as quite possibly the gold standard for a "defensive-attacker" - his high rate in Europe of 2.6 tackles per game exhibits his industry and bite while his 3.6 interceptions per game hints at his tactical awareness. It is perhaps his improved finishing, where he scored once every three matches in league last season, where the midfielder has elevated his game - he also has the tendency to score vital goals (e.g. Arsenal and Chelsea last season). While not being an incisive passer, he is also a tidy distributor (86% passing accuracy in league) in link up play from the narrow positioning that he plays out wide. This assured possession, along with his terrific off-the-ball movement, makes Park a dangerous threat when United break at speed on the counter versus tough opposition. 

For the upcoming season, Park will need to find similar form in order to be called upon again for United's grandest matches. The Korean will likely not get a high number of domestic matches, but he will be a strong candidate to be first-choice again for the big domestic matches and for the club's European nights. Whether it is tracking a tricky opposing full-back or a deep-lying playmaker through the center, Park has proven to be Fergie's tactical swiss-army knife. 

ANTONIO VALENCIA

The Ecuadorian was brought to Old Trafford during the summer of 2009 from Wigan for a reported fee of £16 million. After a tremendous debut season, one in which he was named to the PFA Premier League Team of the Year, the winger suffered a horrific broken ankle in a Champions League tie against Rangers this past September. Valencia valiantly returned last Spring and surprisingly found sensational form for the run-in. The winger not only supplied the Wayne Rooney - Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez duo with his brilliant direct play down the right flank, but he also was superb at pinning back opposing full-backs - including his dominant display versus Ashley Cole in the title decider at Old Trafford.

A close look at the numbers essentially verifies the consensus scouting report on Valencia. His 2.1 accurate passes per game, 2.4 key passes per game, and 1.5 successful dribbles per game in league exhibits the creative force that he is from the right flank - and in a much more direct style than United's other wingers. His 2.0 tackles per game and 1.0 interceptions per game also shows his known defensive quality. Valencia's 86% passing accuracy hints at assured and tidy passing while building into attack, with his only passing that generally does not always find a teammate is his when he whips in dangerous crosses - which is speculative and risker by nature and not a criticism. 

Valencia re-injured his ankle while participating in Copa America this past summer. However, Fergie has indicated that the winger has recovered and is available for the opener. While United's other key wingers provide versatility by being able to play on either flank, the Ecuadorian can only play effectively on the right side. Therefore, he will require tremendous form in order to find regular playing time. If he does find his fine form of last Spring, Valencia is a strong candidate to be first-choice in United's bigger matches due to his defensive qualities. 

ASHLEY YOUNG

While United have the above mentioned wingers, and also the ageless Giggs to provide a shift out wide when needed, Fergie still sought the services of the electric Young during the current summer. The England international can provide value in his versatility, as he's capable of playing on either flank or in the hole behind a lead striker. However, for the time being, it appears that the United boss has the left flank in mind for Young for the upcoming season. As mentioned, Valencia and Nani both prefer the right flank, while Park is seen fit for certain tactical purposes on the left flank. Perhaps Fergie envisions the attacking Young as his left winger for domestic matches - it is anticipated that the pacy winger, who also provides quality with his set-pieces, will get the majority of his playing time on English soil. 

Despite playing withdrawn from a lead striker last season at Aston Villa, Young still tended to drift wide in search of space when his side was attacking. From the wide areas, he looked to combine with a winger and overload the opposition with 2 v 1 situations. Therefore, much of Young's attacking statistics exhibit play still from the wide areas. His 7 league goals and 2.1 shots per game show his goal-scoring threat while his 2.2 accurate crossed per game, 10 assists, and 2.3 key passes per game exhibits his incisive distribution. The Englishman is an exciting addition to the squad and look for him, at least in the early stages of the season, to take dangerous angled runs towards goal from the left while Patrice Evra gets forward for overlapping runs. 

RYAN GIGGS

While the United legend may be seen more as a central player in the twilight of his tremendous career, he still likely will pop up all over the park as the season endures. When Giggsy is deployed out left these days, an area of the pitch where he patrolled with more quality and grace than anybody in Premier League history, he likes to drift inward and link play with the central players. In fact, this has been become a tactical pattern over the past three seasons for every wide left player at United. When he does get down the touchline, he still can whip in quality balls - as his 1.8 accurate crossed per game from last season displays. 

DANNY WELBECK & TOM CLEVERLEY

Both youngsters played wide at times last season while both were out on loan. At Sunderland, Welbeck often played as a wide forward, most often on the left. At Wigan, Cleverley often played wide on the left as well, but in a deeper role from Welbeck's. Cleverley likely will be mostly used as a central midfielder this season but he may pop up at times in the wide areas. Welbeck may be more likely to pop out wide than Cleverley, particularly in the earlier stages of domestic cups. 

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