Those of you that followed The Busby Babe over the summer would not be surprised, and might have even been expecting, to see Marcus Rashford play on the right wing while “right wing signing” Jadon Sancho took up a position on the left at times this season. We initially discussed this when taking a deep look into Marcus Rashford and finding that from the left he has one trick to help him score goals, but ultimately was more productive when playing on the right.
A few weeks later we spoke about how the perception might be that Jadon Sancho was being signed to solve United’s right wing issue, but that wasn’t exactly the case. Over the last two years Sancho had been playing roughly half his minutes for Borussia Dortmund on the left wing and was finding himself a bit more potent on that flank.
Sancho started life at Old Trafford spending the bulk of his minutes on the left side, albeit Rashford was still recovering from off-season surgery. Rashford returned from his injury and quickly reclaimed his left wing spot, scoring goals in his first two appearances.
Albeit utilizing his one trick from the left side.
The hot start quickly fizzled out as Rashford was back up to his old tricks but he’d keep his place for the remainder of the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer era.
Interim manager Ralf Rangnick has tried many different tactics to try and get United going since taking over in early December. One of the tactics he’s used recently has been playing Sancho, United’s second best shot creator, and the best player - by a considerable margin - at successfully getting the ball into the opponents box, back in his best position on the left wing.
The move has kick started United’s attack, to a degree. Over the last three games United have taken 64 shots with an xG of just over 8.2 (per opta). There’s definitely a degree of “this three game run came against the teams that were 10th and 20th in the Premier League and a Championship side” but at the same time, this is what United should be doing against teams of that level. A combination of uncharacteristically awful finishing and some shoddy refereeing decisions have lead to United only scoring on three of those shots leading to all three games having a 1-1 scoreline after 90 minutes.
On the left wing Sancho is starting to find his form. Sort of. He’s continuing to do all the things he’s been doing all season, but the production is now starting to come, and he’s scored two of United’s last three goals.
Sancho’s place has dictated that Rashford move over to the right, where he too has been finding some form. As we discussed over the summer, the game is much simpler for him on the right and you’ll often see him looking to get into good goal scoring positions. That trait itself is what lead to Rashford’s 92nd minute winner four matches ago against West Ham.
On Saturday the two English wingers were thriving again, combining to open the scoring just 21 minutes in when Rashford did what he does best - getting behind the defense - before squaring a ball for Sancho to finish.
The tactic seems to be working not just for both players (smaller sample size but once again Rashford has been FAR more productive from the right than left this season) but the team as well. But one thing has been a bit odd. They don’t seem to play this way the whole match.
Despite starting with Sancho on the left wing and Rashford on the right against Middlesbrough, Burnley, and Southampton, in each match around 20 minutes in the two have swapped sides. They’ll usually remain there for about 15 minutes before swapping back.
Against Burnley, this lead to United’s first goal when Rashford combined well with Luke Shaw to set up a Paul Pogba finish.
Rashford and Shaw have logged many minutes over the last three years on United’s left wing but this was the first time the two combined on a goal since Rashford gave the ball to Shaw and let him carry it up the whole pitch before scoring at the Ethiad last season. It’s the first time they’ve linked up as a LB-LW pair to assist a goal since the 9-0 win over Southampton. That was the only time the two linked up to assist a goal as a LB-LW pair last season suggesting that the narrative that the two are a potent partnership is nothing more than a narrative (over three seasons Shaw’s numbers consistently rise when anyone other than Rashford plays on the LW).
It’s clear this switch is happening based on instructions from Rangnick. The question is why?
On Saturday after Sancho and Rashford made their switch United’s attack went impotent. Between the 21st and 39th minutes (when Rashford was primarily on the left side) United mustered just one shot. That shot was a lousy Paul Pogba effort that came from a set piece.
The two would swap back five minutes prior to halftime and start the second half in that configuration. At around the 62nd minute they swapped sides again, this time until the 76th minute when Anthony Elanga came on and Rashford moved centrally to play next to Cristiano Ronaldo.
Over those 14 minutes United didn’t create a single shot and Rashford was quickly back up to his left sided, tunnel vision, I’ve become really easy to defend, tricks.
Again the question is why? Sure Rashford badly burned the team when he just had no interest in tracking back leading to Che Adams’ goal. It’s possible Sancho was moved over there to provide just a little bit more coverage defensively, but at the same time, because that goal happened, United now needed to score another one. If that’s the game state you find yourself in, it would make sense to put your attackers in the spots where they will be the most dangerous to help you get that goal back.
There is a value in swapping your wingers around to give the opposing team different looks and more to think about. There is a value in having fluid and dynamic front three where any player can pop up anywhere, but this current United side isn’t build like that. The idea was certainly to build it that way with Anthony Martial and he who won’t be named as the number 9 (perhaps Anthony Elanga can play that role) but Cristiano Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani are not the same type of striker as that. They’re not going to interchange and do winger things, therefore it’s best to keep players in positions where they’re going to add the most value to the team.
Sancho is most dangerous with a fullback who knows when to overlap, underlap, or take a spot in midfield and let the midfielder underlap. That fullback is Luke Shaw and while Diogo Dalot has emerged as a strong interior fullback who progresses the ball, he does not have the profile of what’s most dangerous with Sancho.
All of this is ultimately small potatoes. United’s problems go beyond what side Sancho and Rashford are playing on. They go beyond Luke Shaw and Harry Maguire being in bad form. United have the same problem every single week, which is probably why in this world of way too many content providers trying to grab your eyeballs people keep bending over to try and lay the blame at the feet of someone new every single week. It’s too boring to point out the same issue week after week even though it’s there week after week.
United don’t have a midfield. At the start of the season I said “United are easily one of the best four teams in England but if they don’t bring in a midfielder they’re going to make securing a top four finish far more difficult than it should be.” That was based on the assumption that this team would be playing a 4-2-3-1 where they sort of had four options (McTominay, Fred, Pogba, Matic) with none of them actually being good enough for one reason or another.
With Rangnick opting to play this 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 thing United are using a player who doesn’t understand space or simple things like rotations or just delaying the opposition to protect your defense in the most important role on the pitch. Scott McTominay has his traits, but he’s got his shortcomings as well, and Rangnick’s system is doing nothing but exposing how short those short comings are.
January came and went and United inexplicably did nothing to address this weakness in the squad leaving United stuck with what they have. Which also means nothing else matters. Until they address the midfield they’re not going to get the best out of their attacking talent. Until they address the midfield they’re going to leave their defense over exposed and put their defenders in bad situations that maximize their flaws. They’re going to give up dumb goals because they’re hanging players out to dry and they can’t deal with the fires that United themselves are starting, and they’re going to continue to drop points against teams that they shouldn’t be dropping points to.
So I’ll sit here and wonder why Rashford and Sancho keep swapping sides every 15 minutes, and while it seems weird to me, it doesn’t really matter. United have much bigger issues that aren’t going away any time soon.