Manchester United have been a resurgent force in the Premier League this season after an abysmal start that included an opening day loss to Crystal Palace, a 6-1 thumping at the hands of Tottenham, and crashing out of the Champions League with losses to Istanbul Basaksehir, Paris Saint-Germain, and RB Leipzig. They now sit level with Liverpool on points, 2nd only on goal difference, after a 10 game unbeaten run in the league. Bruno Fernandes has continued his heroic form for United, but the rest of the squad is beginning to come along as well. Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, and Paul Pogba have been lively creators and scorers for United in recent matches, and are backed by consistent midfield and defensive performances from a rotating cast of players. David De Gea has rediscovered some of his old confidence as well, producing some classic saves and reminding fans just how well he is capable of playing.
Despite the good form however, Manchester United’s problem position since even before Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s appointment continues to be a glaring hole in even the best starting XI. Really since Antonio Valencia was converted into a right-back, the right wing position has been left unaddressed by Manchester United managers. Juan Mata, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Jesse Lingard among others have tried to fill the role, but these have all been players that performed better at different positions. The role is important to the style of play that Solskjaer employs, and the wide-forward skill set required has proved even more problematic for any quick fix. The players mentioned earlier were more like attacking midfielders than wide forwards, and though Mason Greenwood had a decent run last season — offering a goalscoring threat from the right — it became apparent that he would not be able to provide the same quality in build up play, interchange, and tracking back that Solskjaer wanted from the role.
The problem at right wing was thought to be addressed in the last transfer window with the arrival of Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho, but a potential deal was put off due to ownership and board concerns about club finances and the monumental fee that Dortmund were demanding. Daniel James arrived a year earlier in 2019, and despite some runs of form, he hasn’t shown much growth since his first few matches. Marcus Rashford has begun to play usefully as a right winger this season, forming a nice front 3 with Martial off the left and Cavani through the middle. However, considering Cavani’s recent injury history, age, and unfortunately his 3 game ban for use of a racist slur, that front 3 seems unlikely to feature as regularly as fans would like.
Solskjaer has new options however, in the form of youngsters Facundo Pellistri, 19, and Amad Diallo, 18. The two young forwards were brought in during the final week of the summer transfer window as alternative right wing options. Diallo’s work permit application prevented his immediate arrival, but will soon join the squad this January. Pellistri arrived in September, and has been training with the first team after several good performances with the U-23s. Though neither is a likely option to have a Bruno-like impact coming into the team, they offer fresh opportunity to try and find meaningful production from an area of the lineup that Solskjaer has continually tried to compensate for.
Pellistri’s experience with the U-23s will no doubt have been valuable in acclimating him to the culture of the club and playing within the style that Solskjaer employs. Playing in Uruguay for Penarol would have been valuable experience for the youngster as well, but is a bit off the pace of the Premier League, likely requiring a period of adjustment for Pellistri before he features for Manchester United’s first team. However, given his show of production at U-23 level, and recent club social media attention, Pellistri may be ready for his first shot at first team action, and there are favorable fixtures approaching for this opportunity as well.
While Pellistri has had to undergo adjustment to a higher level of play, Diallo on the other hand has featured for Atalanta on and off the last couple seasons. The Italian club have won hearts recently for their unapologetic tactics and excellent squad development, which helped them to a much more advanced stage of the Champions League than was expected for them. Diallo fit into the side as an energetic, creative attacking option. Sometimes playing wide right and sometimes playing as more of a striker, he brings good on the ball skill as well as valuable experience in a top league. He is supposedly completing his final paperwork now, and will join United in the coming days. Atalanta wanted to retain his services on loan, but Solskjaer rejected this. That indicates 2 things: 1- Atalanta clearly valued his services enough to try and keep Diallo as long as they could, and 2- Solskjaer values him as well, and wants whatever he can offer ASAP.
With games against Watford in the FA Cup and Fulham and Sheffield United in the Premier League, now might be a good time for Solskjaer to see what he has to work with in regards to these two. None of these sides defend particularly well, and perhaps won’t be the biggest test for new talents, but they do present a test for United’s ability to break down opponents. United will likely have the majority of meaningful possession in all three matches, giving whoever starts on the right an opportunity to have consistent involvement in build up play with new teammates. Against Sheffield United this season and Watford last season, United were able to create goals off of counter attacks, balls over the top, and build up play. United haven’t played Fulham yet this season, but if their record so far indicates anything, it’s that the Cottagers are equally vulnerable to whichever route to goal United may test. They have a decent defensive record, but don’t threaten nearly as much as other sides.
Pellistri and Diallo could benefit greatly from experience in these sort of matches, to both build their confidence as they adjust to the side, and test their chemistry with Rashford, Martial, and Greenwood in different formation experiments. Cavani will be back from suspension for Fulham and Sheffield United as well, giving Solskjaer his greatest wealth of attacking options since his appointment. He should take advantage of this luxury as soon as possible against opponents that are easy to break down, before the season moves ever closer to squeaky bum time. Worst case scenario, Pellistri and Diallo are young and need more time to adjust to the team, tactics, level, etc. Best case scenario? Solskjaer discovers that he’s got some reliable options for a problem that has plagued the club for much of the 2010s.