By Matt Tasker
What do you associate with Manchester United? A swashbuckling counter attack? A nerve jangle inducing last-minute goal? Sir Alex Ferguson celebrating goals like a toddler being given chocolate?
All of the above (particularly the latter) are true for the most part, but just as identifiable is the abundance of wingers in United’s squads over the years. Currently on the Reds’ wide-boy books, they have the frustratingly delightful/delightfully frustrating Nani, the (cut-back-curl-it-far-post-GOAL!) summer signing Ashley Young and the tank in human form Antonio Valencia, all vying for starting positions.
Ryan Giggs tucked in his wings a few seasons ago, nesting in a more central role, and United fans are no longer wondering where Park Ji-Sung is as “wherever he may be” is usually just the bench (if he’s lucky) – but both are still capable of getting chalk on their boots out wide if called upon.
Despite United’s wealth in these positions, Sir Alex was recently spotted at the Stade Gerland, reportedly watching Belgian Eden Hazard – another winger. Perhaps this is a signal that Nani or Park may fly the nest this summer, but that would come as a surprise to most.
The edges of Old Trafford’s pitch have paved the way for some legendary wide-men long before Sir Alex knocked Liverpool off their perch; perhaps none more so than the remarkable George Best. But the manager has added some world-class talent of his own to that list, with David Beckham and, 2008 Ballon d’or winner, Cristiano Ronaldo both occupying the number 7 shirt and the right-flank for some hugely successful periods.
Indeed it was Beckham’s corners in ’99 and Ronaldo’s header in ’08 that helped fire United to Champions League successes. Perhaps the boss shares special bond with wingers as they’re the ones getting pelted with his minty spittle as they run past his technical area.
But has the manager’s reliance on width become an albatross around his neck, leaving him in danger of falling behind as tactics and football ethos evolves?
Current league form would suggest not, but a quick look at some of the stand-out performances in this season may give a hint to what’s around the corner for football. Both David Silva and Juan Mata have been exceptional for Manchester City and Chelsea respectively this season. Previously these two would and have been classed as wingers, but lately this type of player has been given free roam of the attacking third to swoop just behind the front line and slip in crucial through-balls.
The archetypal wing-men are being phased in to a more central play-making position – something United are currently missing. The emergence of Tom Cleverley could make him a long-term suitor, but rumours of Luka Modrić bringing that headband up North never seem to fully dissipate.
Again, those are just rumours and Sir Alex may feel he does not need to change in line with the current trend. When José Mourinho gave Claude Makelele the (conveniently named) Makelele role, most pundits agreed United would need to find a player in this mould to compete, yet the manager resisted and did alright, I’d say.
He may also feel that for all Antonio Valencia’s single-footedness and predictability, left-backs are still finding it nigh on impossible to stop him flying past them to the by-line. And once he’s there, if you lift up the hood of the Tank, you’ll find a well-oiled crossing machine.
So Sir Alex may well bank on Valencia’s throwback wing-play to power the club to yet more success as he approaches his swan song. But don’t rule out a summer signing that creates a shift in his tactics. Either way it’s hard to see the United manager clipping the wings of the team altogether – there’s too much history in those touchlines for that.