It's not really a secret anymore, at least in these parts, that Manchester United currently have a winger problem. Antonio Valencia's form has continually dipped during the past few months, injuries and contractual issues have been key factors for Nani's poor season, and Ashley Young has been hit-or-miss due to injury and inconsistency. At the current moment, 39-year-old Ryan Giggs is the club's best winger. That is kind of awesome. That is also terrifying.
What a treat it's been, though, watching the legendary Welshman dance and dink his way through hapless defenders these past few weeks. He no longer possesses searing pace to surge by opponents, but he does use craft and guile to still occasionally influence matches. In a piece for ESPN Soccernet after Saturday's FA Cup defeat of Fulham, Richard Jolly had this to say about Giggs' role out wide in the twilight of his career:
"Long a specialist outside left, he now tends to be found three-quarters of the way across the pitch. It leaves space outside him for Patrice Evra to advance into. Indeed, Giggs lets the full-back go past him, too. The moment when United should have had a second penalty, when [Damien] Duff headed a chipped pass intended for the overlapping Evra, was a case in point.
Besides allowing Evra to do some of his running, the other advantage for Giggs is that he can wander between centre-back and full-back or between central midfielder and right winger in an area where opponents are unsure who ought to track him. He can play between the lines, both horizontally and vertically."
In general, despite United's problems out wide this season, they're fine out on the left flank. In recent years, that position has had different responsibilities from the right-winger. Here's how Jolly describes United's left-sided attacking role:
"Manchester United have not had an out-and-out left winger since the younger, if not necessarily young, Giggs. They have used right-footed wingers who tend to cut infield, like Nani and Ashley Young, strikers who are charged with being workhorses, in Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck, a midfielder selected for his stamina and defensive ethic in the departed Ji-Sung Park, and, recently, two more who would prefer to be in central roles, in Tom Cleverley and Shinji Kagawa. Wilfried Zaha, scheduled to arrive in the summer, is another right-footed winger who is unlikely to hug the left touchline."
The right-winger is the one tasked with providing genuine width and an outlet near the touchline. It's an absolute must, in Sir Alex Ferguson's preferred 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 system, that this player be able to receive out wide in order to horizontally stretch the attacking space while also being audacious enough to constantly take on his marker -- going outside the opposition left-back and crossing from near the byline is a common move. On the current United squad, only Valencia and Nani can provide this. Neither, though, have sufficiently done their job as of late.
In a few weeks time, United have a few challenging fixtures that await them -- a tricky Premier League one on February 10 against Everton, a side that has already defeated them this season, and also the first-leg of the highly anticipated UEFA Champions League tie with nine-time European champions Real Madrid just three days later. United badly need either Valencia or Nani to find decent form by then. This isn't just because these opponents are good teams, it's because there is tactical importance for a United right-winger to perform well in these particular contests.
Everton manager David Moyes prefers to attack down the flanks and he specifically has training-ground exercises where the point of attack is continually switched with diagonal passes until an overload can be created on one side. Undoubtedly, the left-side is a huge strength for the Toffees. Here's how Michael Cox described it in a piece for Four Four Two in October:
"Everton’s main strength this season has been their left flank, where leftback Leighton Baines has been excellent, leading Europe’s five major leagues in terms of chances created. His relationship with Steven Pienaar has been highly effective, meaning that Everton concentrate a higher proportion of their passing down the left than any other Premier League side."
To further expand on that, a common attacking move is for Everton to play a long-ball into Marouane Fellaini high up the pitch (he tends to drift left when he receives these passes) and the big Belgian then lays the ball off for a diagonally cutting left-winger (Pienaar or someone else) or for Baines out wide when the full-back bombs forward for an overlap. United had massive trouble with this in August. This Everton strength, though, can also be a weakness if properly exploited. Here's how (again from Cox):
"Yet their apparent strength could become their most obvious weakness... Of concern is the threat in behind Baines. When these two sides met at Wembley for the FA Cup semi-final in April, Liverpool continually exploited the space in behind the leftback by moving Luis Suarez over to that side. When Baines advanced forward to cross the ball, Suarez would move towards that flank; dragging Sylvain Distin out of position before sprinting in behind him.
Distin had problems with Suarez all game. The Frenchman’s disastrous underhit backpass played Suarez in for Liverpool’s equaliser, but long before then, the problem was evident. Distin had fouled him on the edge of the box, he’d also been booked for checking him higher up the pitch, and then resorted to playing a risky offside trap against a player who was significantly quicker than him.
Part of the problem, however, was that Baines wasn’t in a position to help. As he attempted to stick tight to Jordan Henderson, who was playing on the right of a midfield four, Distin effectively had to cover the width of half the pitch against Suarez. The problem wouldn’t have been so obvious if Liverpool had used an advanced right-winger pinning Baines back – this would have minimised the space in the channel."
This makes it pretty clear that United need a right-winger in decent form for the upcoming Everton clash. This player could either push Baines back or if the left-back continues with his adventurous ways, Ferguson's side can look to attack in this vulnerable space in behind him. It was only a few months ago when United were exploiting the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal with surging breaks down the right-flank. 2 v 1 breaks were created against the Blues because their left-sided attacker, Eden Hazard, wouldn't track back and similar overloads were created against the Gunners when left-back Andre Santos continually was caught out too high up the pitch. With an in-form right-winger, this is the sort of joy the Red Devils could experience against the Toffees.
Against Real Madrid, as well, an effective Valencia or Nani would be enormously useful. When this Champions League fixture was announced in December, here's part of what I wrote as an initial reaction to that draw:
"At United, [Cristiano] Ronaldo popped up all over the place in attack -- on the right, left, and center -- but at Madrid, he mostly plays as a left-sided attacker. He's obviously a supremely gifted player, and he'll go down as one of football's all-time greats when he hangs up his boots. Jonathan Wilson, though, did recently pose the intriguing question of whether the Portuguese is a strength or weakness to his team? Gary Neville, though, simply feels that Cristiano taught him a new way to play the game.
Nevertheless, Madrid's clear strength is their left-side (Ronaldo with either Marcelo or Fabio Coentrao) and United tend to focus their attacks down their right-side (Antonio Valencia with Rafael). This will be the toughest defensive test of young Rafael's career but the energetic Brazilian will have his chances to break forward and contribute in attack. Ronaldo is prone to not tracking back while Valencia and Rafael have proven that they can be lethal on the counterattack. It'll be nervy moments when Ronaldo is on the ball and he's likely to create some magic during this tie. However, United will have their chances as well down the same flank."
Specifically, especially at the Bernabeu, the English side may be able to create these sort of chances against the Spanish side through counterattacking. This is because of two simple reasons: (1) United have already proven they can be lethal on the break this season when Ferguson uses a counterattacking 4-4-1-1 system in 'big games' and (2) Madrid are probably a side you want to give the ball to anyway. Here is what Real Betis manager Felipe Mel had to say after his side defeated the Meringues this season:
"Against this Madrid you have the ball and you think that you're dominating. Suddenly, wallop. In three plays they have created six chances. They play openly on the break and it works well for them. They have no problem doing that because they know that when they do that they are the best. We tried to let them have the ball."
United only have two fixtures left prior to the Everton game -- home to Southampton on Wednesday (January 30) and away to Fulham next weekend (February 2). Valencia and Nani will only have these matches, and coincidentally, an international friendly between their respective national sides -- Ecuador and Portugal -- on February 6 to possibly find a spark for improved form. This may or may not happen.
Valencia simply is unable to consistently beat his marker at the moment. Many even feel that he doesn't exhibit the confidence to do so. He hasn't been able to establish enough separation in order to whip in crosses for lethal finishers like Robin van Persie and Javier Hernandez (Chicharito). He does, though, track back and he also has a tremendous understanding with right-back Rafael. It's the latter contribution that still allows him to release the feisty Brazilian for his own attacking forays. It would be lovely, though, if the Ecuadorian could rediscover the ability and belief to take on Baines and Marcelo (or Coentrao).
Nani started this past weekend against Fulham in the FA Cup tie and there were plenty of criticisms for his performance. When one considers, though, that he's hardly featured in recent months and that his form has been horrendous all season, it's encouraging that he did look lively in moments. His end-product and decision-making was certainly erratic but he at least showed the willingness to take on defenders -- and he even got by them at times. On his day, Nani will continue to frustrate in moments but he's capable of creating a plethora of chances -- whether that be for fellow attackers or for himself. Perhaps a few more games in the upcoming weeks can help sort him out.
It's impossible to know if either Valencia or Nani will find form in the few weeks. That perhaps might even be unlikely. United fans, though, need to hope this happens if they want desired results against Everton and Madrid. Fine performances from a right-winger could potentially avenge the Everton loss from earlier in the season and it could also be vital in a possible famous win at the Bernabeu.