In years past, United was known for playing a modern and counter-attacking style that was based on having quality, or at least effective, players on the wing. The team hasn’t really had a devastating trio up from since Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, and Carlos Tevez shared the field together, which has progressively weakened the team’s attack.
While it may be difficult to recreate such a world-class frontline, there’s still other ways to be successful playing a similar style as those teams did, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer seems keen to do so based on how he’s managed the transfer window so far.
Solskjaer has officially made winger Daniel James his first senior squad signing as Manchester United manager, and the signing provides insight into Ole’s prioritization of wing-play in his attacking scheme next season.
James is a smart player who is exceptional at making runs behind defenders and attacking open spaces, but he’s known primarily for his blistering pace. Joining a complimentary frontline with Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, James’ skillset and upside should be on full display throughout the season.
United is still expected to make a plethora of signings throughout the summer transfer window, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise if they continue to sign attackers that can spread the field and make quick and smart runs into space. And while James may not be a full-time starter if United sign some world-class talent, he’ll likely be an important part of the team’s rotation.
With a hypothetical front three of Martial on the left, Rashford as the striker, and James on the right, United would have an extremely dynamic and lightning fast attacking trio. This would open up a world of possibilities for creating chances and being more direct on the wing.
While Martial’s value lies with taking on defenders before trying to cut inside to create opportunities, James can be a little more versatile when he attacks. James is able to dribble past defenders and cut inside when needed, but he’s also capable of adding more width to the field by attacking open spaces near the touchline, which will spread the opposing defenders.
This is something that United has not been able to successfully do on a consistent basis. Defenses have been able to stall United attacks by suffocating the middle of the field and parking the bus. Players such as Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard, who generally prefer to function in the middle of the field and aren’t necessarily quick enough to beat defenders, have struggled playing on the wings for United. The lack of space in the middle has been a crippling issue on the offensive end, so an influx of pace and knowledge for playing wide will boost United’s offense straight away.
Essentially, a defense that is spread from wing to wing becomes increasingly vulnerable, as it creates additional space down the middle for strikers to function. Fortunately, United currently employ one of England’s shiftiest attacking players in Rashford.
Rashford should be able to take full advantage of the additional space to work, as he’s always had a knack for making intelligent runs into the box or out to the wing. This will allow Rashford to use his speed, agility, and dribbling ability to either get a shot on goal or create a chance for someone else. Ultimately, a wider field should theoretically benefit Rashford’s game, so a break-out year could be on the cusp for the young Englishman.
Rashford isn’t the only player able to make intelligent reads on the offensive end, though, as Martial and James have also flashed the ability to do so. United’s offense will surely benefit from having three players (if not more, depending on their signings) that can make constant runs behind defenders and make plays.
Taking advantage of their perceived versatility on the offensive end will also be highly dependent on who’s in the midfield next season. Keeping Pogba, despite some of the noise around a possible move, should be a priority. Pogba provides the world-class and forward-thinking creativity necessary to spot passing lanes and open spaces, which will surely be difficult to replace. Nonetheless, if Pogba does leave the club, they’ll need to find another creative midfielder that’ll be able to provide United’s frontline with ample service.
Barring any lack of midfield talent, Ole’s side should also be one of the most devastating counter-attacking teams in the Premier League. While this wholly depends on the quality of defenders they sign (can’t counter-attack if the other team scores, obviously), United’s ability to get out on the break with pace should be key to their success next season.
There is nothing more valuable than catching a defense by surprise before they can adjust, and on paper, a trio of Martial, Rashford, and James should be effective in that respect. Additionally, Ole should already be acquainted with that style of play, as its been United’s bread and butter for years. When the Red Devils have been at their very best, they’ve been unrelenting on the counter, making teams pay for any mistake they make.
This should continue to be true with Ole’s iteration of the team, as he’ll have the means to counter-attack successfully with the pace and skill that his attacking unit will have.
Whether it be from build-up play or on the counter-attack, United will now have a diverse set of options on the offensive end. The styles of play will surely compliment the talent United has in its ranks, and will allow the offense to run more fluidly than in years past.