Manchester Utd: The Fullback Problem
Football, like every other aspect of life is constantly evolving. Long ago, defenders (especially full backs) were required to only be defensively astute. Full backs in this said era had more in common with their center-backs than they did with the wingers in front of them; they were great tacklers, good in the air and excellent man-makers. As football has evolved, full-backs have grown to have more in common with wingers than they do with center-backs. Over the years, full backs have become more influential in the attacking third of the pitch; they’re now pacier, better crossers of the ball, and better dribblers.
As we all know, systems and formations are periodic and cyclical, which is why nearly all the teams in the top leagues play similar systems at the same point in the time over different sample periods.
For example, a quick look at the last four UEFA Champions League winners (these teams have also won the last eight editions of the tournament) - Barcelona, Real Madrid, Liverpool, Bayern Munich- shows an interesting thing they all have in common; they feature Inside Forwards /Inverted Wingers.
Arjen Robben + Franck Ribery, Neymar + Lionel Messi, Gareth Bale + Cristiano Ronaldo, Mo Salah + Sadio Mane and Serge Gnabry + Ivan Perisic/Kingsley Coman... all playing on the opposite wing of their favorite foot and full backs (Philipp Lahm + David Alaba, Dani Alves + Jordi Alba, Dani Carvajal + Marcelo, Trent Alexander-Arnold + Andy Robertson and Alphonso Davies + Joshua Kimmich) attacking the spaces created with the movements of these forwards taking opposing defenders infield. The Inside Forwards going infield automatically means more bodies in the box for the attacking team so, quality deliveries will consistently put them on the front foot.
See below the Starting System (4-2-3-1) vs the System in Play
System in Play
Solksjaer has tried to replicate this system albeit with a downgrade in quality. Mason Greenwood, being left footed, has been deployed on the right while Rashford, a right-footer, has been deployed on the left. They’ve showed a willingness to take on opposition defenders infield and this creates spaces out wide for overlapping full backs to take advantage of.
While, admittedly, there is a lot to be desired in Luke Shaw’s end product, it is clear why majority of United’s attacks come from the left side of the pitch. Aaron Wan-Bissaka is however nothing like the aforementioned full backs. He is not willing to take defenders on, neither is he willing to deliver any sort of ball inside the box. His first instinct is to return the ball to the last United player to touch the ball or play it backwards to Lindelof; The Right-Sided United Center-Back.
For Brandon Williams, the limitations are that he’s right footed playing on the left. So, while he’s taking a few seconds to gather his feet, opponents reset and return back to shape. Luke Shaw looks to be the only outlet at the club that is considered for selection by the coaching staff. Even then he has had serious fitness issues limiting his playing time and, in turn, his development.
What this means for United is that a lot of opponents, especially the smaller teams, are way more comfortable playing narrow knowing that allowing them spaces out wide poses little to no danger to their goal. As a result of playing narrow, the United Midfielders will always suffer to create chances especially seeing that the opponents have choked up all channels and lines in the middle of the pitch. It, in turn, means United are automatically limited to sideways passing with minimal penetration as opponents have them right where they want them.
United basically have to depend on moments of brilliance from forward players, loss of concentration from the opponents or what is now being referred to as “insha allah”, a loose term for a Hail Mary indicating a reliance on a miraculous bailout. For all of United’s improvements in terms of defending (United finished the 2019/20 season with the top five most clean-sheets in Europe’s top five leagues), it is clear to see the areas that require the most work in terms of competing domestically and abroad.
Luke Shaw is 25 years old, Aaron Wan-Bissaka is 22 years old and has spent just 1 season after being bought for £50m (a large investment for a full back), Brandon Williams is 20 years old and has just signed a new deal to remain at the club up until 2024 while Diogo Dalot, 21 years old, is not even considered for selection on most Match Days. If this proposed system is going to work, the role of the full backs cannot be overstated. They are practically the most creative outlets in this system as they are afforded the most time on the ball. Which begs the question, why aren’t United fixated on solving this obvious problem that is the full back.
While new signing Donny Van De Beek and top transfer target, Jadon Sancho are solid options going forward, United’s front 4 have done enough to rival the front 4 of other big sides in terms of end product. However, a collective 1 goal and 4 assists from Aaron Wan Bisakka, Brandon Williams and Luke Shaw combined in the league is appalling especially when you put it side by side with all other teams in the Top Six.
To put these figures into perspective, Trent Alexander-Arnold & Andy Robertson, the full backs for United’s bitter rivals, Liverpool combined for 5 goals and 25 assists in the league alone. You can take it a notch lower to full backs like Ricardo Perreira, Lucas Digne, Aaron Cresswell, Ryan Betrand etc. All of them seem to be way more productive and creative than the United pair. This goes to show that even against midtable opposition, they still fall short in every aspect of the attacking game play
While Man United are lacking in a number of areas, they should be fixated on getting solid additions in these areas that are most lacking in the squad in my opinion so as to fully maximize the potentials of this young squad and give them an identity.
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