Throughout last season, struggling Manchester United manager David Moyes was lambasted for relying almost entirely on wing-play: a trend that reached its zenith as the Reds whipped 81 crosses into the penalty area in a miserable draw at home to relegated Fulham -- the most any Premier League side had delivered since 2006. It was a strategy the Cottagers' defender Dan Burn hadn't seen since he played semi-professional football, and described by his manager René Meulensteen as "straightforward."
The tactics nerds drew endless luminous circles on countless pixelated screengrabs; the stats geeks constantly bombarded us with data on the inefficiency of crosses. It all got a little out of hand, but there certainly was some basis to their suggestions. Most of the world's best teams score by slicing through defences with quick, intricate passes in the final third. United seemed almost completely incapable of doing so. The wingers stayed wide, the defensive midfielders stayed deep, and it often left Wayne Rooney floating adrift in a sea of opposition defenders, unable to do anything when he received the ball to feet.
Since Louis van Gaal took charge in the summer, this has changed markedly. After some early experimentation, the Dutchman has settled on a variant of a diamond midfield, with the emphasis has been on creating attacks through the centre of the field. But too often this season, the Reds have been pretty turgid in possession. Sure, they've seen a lot of the ball in a lot of their matches, but their chance creation has still been pretty unimpressive. Their narrowness has allowed opposition teams to stay deep and narrow, and one-goal victories over the likes of Crystal Palace and Stoke City and the weekend's draw away at Aston Villa have been the rather unimpressive outcomes.
In short, United have gone from being over-reliant on wing-play, to under-reliant on it. The de-Moyesinization has come at a cost. (For the benefit of the statistically inclined, United have apparently averaged just under 24 crosses per game this season, though that figure is distorted by by Ángel Di María, who seems to have the uncanny ability to cross the ball from just about everywhere on the pitch).
This argument is not that United should revert to trying to bombard crosses into the box. Even with perhaps the greatest aerial striker in the world, Radamel Falcao in their ranks, it isn't a progressive playing style, and it's unlikely to win them a Premier League. But width serves a secondary -- but no less crucial -- function other than just allowing for crosses to be delivered into the box. The presence of wingers high up the field forces opponents to stretch out and defend the width of the pitch rather than just that of the penalty area. In turn, that creates more space for other attackers through the middle. There's also the fact that wingers are much more convenient out-balls on the counter-attack than wing-backs.
Admittedly at present, injuries have made it difficult or van Gaal to play with wingers. The absence of full-backs Luke Shaw and Rafael da Silva have resorted to Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia playing as wing-backs, but the former is inconsistent and the latter almost entirely incapable of beating an opponent in a one-on-one, instead often just stopping on the ball and laying it off to a teammate. Unless said opponent is Joe Allen, that is.
There's also the issue of personnel. Even with Rafael and Shaw fit, there's no guarantee that van Gaal has sufficient belief in their abilities to thrust them into the first team. Likewise, Young and Valencia are both pretty mediocre players for a team expecting to challenge for the title, and deploying them in attacking positions would cause problems higher up the field, forcing better players out of the team. Ángel Di María could feasibly play out on the left instead of Young, but his performances over the last couple of seasons have suggested he's much better through the middle.
And so, the obvious solution is to look to the transfer market. Over the last couple of days, United have been widely linked with Real Madrid winger Gareth Bale, in an eye-boggling £90 million move. Now, the origin of this report is the Sunday Express, who aren't exactly known for their transfer precision -- and that's being kind. But with United having already spent big this season, and having implied that they're not finished yet, it's not beyond the realms of possibility.
Sadly, the need to persuade Real Madrid that they don't particularly need their goalscoring Champions League final-winning record signing will probably prove to be an insurmountable hurdle. But contrary to what it may seem on first glance, Bale's arrival wouldn't be a gratuitous fritter. It would be a step towards resolving one of van Gaal's biggest tactical problems.