As the final whistle blew at St Mary’s on Saturday evening, two-hundred odd miles north west it’s likely that the sound of ripping paper could be heard tearing through the front room of the Ferguson household.
With City beaten 3-1 by Southampton, all bets were off (in some cases quite literally) and any ideas of squad rotation were quickly abandoned; the advantage would be pressed home with a full-strength side to secure 12-point lead at the top.
Based on present form, the core of United’s strongest starting eleven picks itself at present: De Gea in goal; Evra and Rafael out wide; Evans guards the centre alongside one of Vidic and Rio; Carrick and Cleverley take the middle; and Rooney and van Persie line up at the front.
It’s out on the wings where selection decisions are less obvious, and yesterday it was Antonio Valencia and Ryan Giggs who got the nod – the latter of whom defied his ageist critics by scoring the team’s opener, continuing his streak of netting a league goal in all 23 seasons of his United career so far.
Compared to other areas of the squad, the roster of wingers and wide players lacks a sense of definitive hierarchy. While the striker quartet is ordered by a clear ranking, Giggs, Kagawa, Nani, Valencia and Young are all valid options, each bringing their own distinct qualities and functions to the table. Such is the influence that the wide positions hold over United’s system, no other feature of the team sheet currently tells us so much pre-match.
The reasons for the winger’s instructive influence at Old Trafford are many: the brittle nature of the two-man midfield leads to specialists and creators being pushed out wide; Sir Alex’s indulgence of wide players ensures width is almost always a key component of his tactics; the roaming habits of Wayne Rooney take him naturally to onto the left; attacking full-backs require support, and so on and so forth.
Effectively, the ethos of “the United way” and the manner in which the modern game has subverted and developed the winger into its many present-day guises, has lead to a compromise whereby they have become the enablers of game plans rather than match winners themselves. Like the midfielder situation at Chelsea, or Mancini’s fullback dilemma, the decision of who mans the flanks is fundamental to how the team functions as a whole.
Player names have become shorthand for specific tactics. Reading Valencia’s name suggests a lob-sided attack weighted to the right with plenty of width and overlaps from Rafael; Kagawa narrows the play, tucking in and drifting into the middle to retain possession and encourage a clever passing game; Nani is a gamble on dribbles, tricks and moments of frustration and genius; and Giggs is all about delivery and smart movement at the expense of ball retention.
Young is perhaps the most interesting option in terms of how his role has changed since joining the club from Aston Villa; arriving as an attacking asset he has become an upgrade and replacement for Park Ji-Sung.
Right footed, Young’s tendency to cut inside has seen him often tuck in to guard against potential counters, covering the runs of midfielders as they surge forward to link with the attack. His strong work ethic and high levels of stamina have also seen him often track back to shield and protect Patrice Evra, who’s bombing drives down the left flank would otherwise have been exposed.
Rested for the weekend’s 2-0 win against Everton, Young is now fit once more and available to play. Having been selected to play against Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea earlier this season, the winger’s industry and mentality may have convinced Sir Alex of his credentials as a big game player. A starting berth within the line up for Wednesday’s evening at the Bernabeu may well be in the offing.
On the right, its difficult to look past Valencia. Even when out of form – his usually explosive wing play seems dulled through a lack of confidence and sharpness at present - his combination with Rafael is worth far more than the sum of its parts. Together they have become a fearsome duet both in attack and defense. Although Nani remains the more spectular and skilful player, his individualist approach seems less sturdy and consistant to the Valencia-Rafael partnership, regardless of their abilities on paper.
Phil Jones’ role as Fellaini’s midfield tormenter has been highlighted for praise and attention in the light of the Belgian’s sub-dued performance in yesterday’s game, but the manner in which Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar were neautralised by United’s right wing partnership was perhaps even more key.
Had United’s right flank lacked the solidarity of undertstanding and tactical awareness to pin Baines back while cutting the options for an isolated Pienaar, Fellaini may well have enjoyed a far greater quality of service, limiting Jones’ effeciveness and unleashing the awkward Moroccan’s chest to once again lay siege to the six yard box. With Ronaldo and Marcelo looming on Madrid’s left side, another big performance will be required to snuff out Mourinho’s most obvious angle of attack.
What’s your favourite left and right wing combination for United both past and present?