Paul Parker, Gary Neville, Wes Brown, Rafael, Antonio Valencia, and Aaron Wan-Bissaka. There’s an unwritten tradition here. The modern history of Manchester United’s right-back, Rafael aside, is of a type: industrious, defender first, and no-nonsense. This was also tradition in the Premier League until recently.
Jamie Carragher’s famous “No one wants to grow up and be a Gary Neville” jibe still holds true because there aren’t many that play the full-back role as it was played in Neville and Carragher’s era.
The full-back has become this polyvalent position. The grafter still exists, like Manchester United’s current right-back, but there’s also the wing-back, the inverted full-back, and as John Muller, who writes the brilliant soccer newsletter ‘space space space’ put it recently: the elbow back.
Ethan Laird has primarily played as a right wing-back in a 3-4-1-2 formation while on loan at MK Dons. Where Aaron Wan-Bissaka looks to trap wingers in his web in the great theatre, Ethan Laird leaves a trail of silk with every step he takes on MK Dons’ muddy battleground.
Laird will have to break tradition if he’s to embark on a future at Manchester United, and — in MK Dons — he’s chosen a loan move that has broken tradition for some valuable game time. If it was a hard ask to scale James Garner’s stint in a Championship side with what he can offer Manchester United, it’s an even harder ask to scale a League One side with the demands at Manchester United; however, the club he’s on loan at has made that just a little bit easier.
MK Dons is not just one of the more unique teams in English football, it is unique to Europe. Only two clubs enjoy a higher percentage of possession (63.82 %) in Europe: Manchester City (63.84 %) and Barcelona (65.11 %).
Its high-spirited manager, Russell Martin, is as bullish about his process and principles as any of the managers on the apex of the football pyramid. He’s often challenged in press conferences by prickly journalists and isn’t hesitant to shut them down. It has rubbed off on impressionable young Laird as well.
Here’s what Ethan Laird has to say on the Totally Football Show podcast’s recent episode:
“The way we play is my idea of playing football. It’s brave, confident, and knowing that all our team are ball-players. It’s just the way football should be played.”
Loves a nutmeg
Now, all wing backs aren’t the same. The best wing backs can be classified into two types: the traditional winger that got ousted for inside forwards and inverted wingers (Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young, Victor Moses, Jesus Navas); and the giant 6 foot lump who likes to sneak into the back-post and score goals (Marcos Alonso, Matt Doherty, and Hans Hateboer).
Ethan Laird isn’t quite like either, but more like the former. He loves a dribble and a nutmeg. He’s averaged around 1.6 dribbles per game this season and attempts twice that.
This was in his first League One game against second place Peterborough United.
One dribble, two dribbles, see you later.
Here’s a nutmeg in the first half. You can spot the opposition player on the verge of kneeling for mercy.
Laird followed this up with another nutmeg in the second-half. Why so many nutmegs? Well, Laird is indulged in Russell Martin’s set up, but this can lead to a little giddiness.
He often jumps traffic when he has the option of playing a pass. Here, he could’ve played a first-time ball but got dispossessed instead.
There are times where he moves infield from his wide position with no real idea of where he wants to play the ball before hitting a dead end. Now, he’s been indulged in this set-up because he has the license to.
He plays really high in this MK Dons side.
How high? Well, let’s have a look at his average positions map in one of the games.
That’s quite high and he doesn’t have too many touch maps where he’s not beyond the half-way line.
Let’s now have a look at his heat map.
Let’s now compare that to Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s heat map for Manchester United for this season.
They’re very different players so this isn’t revelatory, but what came as an even bigger surprise was comparing his heat map to Daniel James’ from last season.
Ethan Laird is involved in more final third activity than Daniel James on the right-wing. Let that sink in for a second. Laird averages 46 touches per game and often ends up with over 60 in a game.
This has a lot to do with how MK Dons build up. Laird, in the Totally Football Show podcast, mentions how everything in the team’s game is predicated on engineering space for each player. There’s always a free man and Laird has to be the one high and wide on the right flank.
Here’s a screengrab that demonstrates that.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka would probably be the player in the build-up phase for United here. If Ethan Laird were to drop deep at MK Dons, he’d go straight to the bench because that’d be a neglection of his position.
This would not only obstruct his teammates’ path, it would also not allow his teammate to have an out ball under pressure. It’s a basic tenet of positional play and it’s great that Ethan Laird is learning positional discipline so early in his career.
What about his crossing? He’s not really a first-time crosser. Even when there’s space, he has a predisposition to taking his man on before playing a cut-back or a pass in the “corridor of uncertainty” for a tap-in. He also looks for flighted balls to the back post.
Here are some examples where he’s successful:
Now, playing this high also means that a lot of his defensive actions are higher up the pitch or in the middle-third.
Under this set-up, he doesn’t have a lot of channel defending to do. He’s encouraged to get a little aggressive.
Sometimes it comes off, like in this example:
Now, he’s committed quite early here and a mistimed tackle could’ve been costly with a lot of space but that’s the nature of pressing high and team defense. The centre-back should also probably be ready to defend the channel. However, it didn’t matter here cause the tackle was timed to perfection.
But there are times where it doesn’t work, like in this example, where he doesn’t stop a dangerous transition from taking place.
This could also be done to mask a weakness. Laird doesn’t always close his man down quickly enough at times. There were multiple examples where he’d let the opposition wide man play crosses.
Here, he’s a little lethargic in his tracking.
It leads to a dangerous cross that he could’ve prevented.
Here, his lack of effort leads to a goal.
Now, we’re talking about breaking tradition here. So, this is something he should work on and maybe just closing down his man a little quicker will do the trick because when Laird is tight, he’s quite strong and capable of outmuscling anyone. It’s the same low center of gravity that he uses to beat players under pressure when he’s on the ball.
Here’s an example where he uses that strength.
Nice and easy.
In the earlier examples, it’s clear that he’s not one to get his timing right on tackles.
Against Burton, his mistimed tackle cost his side a penalty and this is an area Laird should work on because there will be times where he has to track runners even for a side as dominant as MK Dons and a future Manchester United side.
His attacking attributes look very promising though, and it might be enough to trade-off his defensive shortcomings for now.
While going into this report, I also had a look at Laird in different match states. There were two games where MK Dons had less possession compared to the opposition but it didn’t really provide new information on Laird.
There was a game against Oxford United, where he was dispossessed 29 times, but this had more to do with his defensive actions (clearances, tackles, and tackles).
The early nutmeg screengrabs also suggest that this is a player capable of progressing the ball from deeper areas. He’s unlikely to do long switches of play and will rely on carrying the ball and dribbling under pressure. These are qualities that would be of use in a modern right-back’s role.
If fans are looking for a comparison, think Leicester City’s Ricardo Pereira. Of course, a fit Pereira’s also one of the best defensive full backs in the league but his attacking game gives you an idea of the type of full-back Laird is.
Can Laird eventually make the cut?
Well, the boy definitely doesn’t lack confidence.
As Laird succinctly puts it in this interview:
“I know when I get the ball, it should be fireworks.”
There haven’t been a lot of fireworks on that wing for a long time now. Watching Laird is quite exciting.
Now, some might suggest that Ethan Laird needs to play as a right-back because that’s what he’ll be asked to do at United. While this is true, knowing a player’s strengths and masking those weaknesses is what the best coaches do, and it can be done at United. This has been a fantastic loan for the young right-back because we’re unlikely to learn more about him at another side. There’s no uncertainty about his player-profile: what he is and what he isn’t.
Now, for a big call. This writer firmly believes he should get on that pre-season tour and join the first-team next season, and for a few reasons.
MK Dons won’t be getting promotion to the Championship next season and its manager has already alluded to Ethan Laird as one of three players who isn’t going to get as much game-time at the back end of this season cause he’s aware that Laird will likely leave soon.
Then there’s the big chasm on the right flank in this current United side. Laird will give United another progressive option in that side of pitch. At the moment, United are far too lop-sided – not just in build-up, but also in the creative third.
Many fans will be hoping that this season is the last they see of the McFred midfield. If Solskjaer persists with the McFred midfield next season with United not really being linked to holding midfielders, a profile like Laird will mask some of McTominay’s biggest weaknesses.
McTominay is not great in the first phase of build-up, never really offering a passing option unless he moves a little deeper to the right and forms a back three. This is how he’s used for the Scotland national team, but if he were to do this at United, Wan-Bisakka then becomes the wide outlet where he’s not a real threat. There are then no real solutions unless Amad Diallo is trusted more.
Now, Aaron Wan-Bissaka will be United’s starting right-back next season but he’ll need a rest. Wan-Bissaka, along with Bruno Fernandes and Harry Maguire, has had little to no rest since joining the side and he’d also have someone vying for his spot.
Diogo Dalot has been underwhelming since his move to AC Milan, often playing as a left-back, like he did at United. It seems like United would be better off letting that ship sail.
Laird would not just be a back-up but also a potential solution for that flank. This will also help Solskjaer and his coaching staff come up with different tactical plans for the opposition, which suits his managerial style.
Laird’s boisterous personality suggests he’d be ready for the step-up at Old Trafford. If nothing else, he’s also got the – buzzword alert – DNA.