Home » Two out, one in? The state of play of Manchester United’s right-backs

Two out, one in? The state of play of Manchester United’s right-backs

by Seth Dooley

Various reports this week have been focused on Manchester United’s right-back spot.

The full-back position in general appears to be important for how Erik ten Hag’s side will operate. For the Dutchman’s ideal possession-based system to function with success, his full-backs will need to learn to adapt their position in order to constantly engage with build-up play as well as enforcing transitional moments.

Carl Anka described Ten Hag’s use of full-backs in a great piece for The Athletic during the summer.

‘In both of the famed Eredivisie-winning Ajax sides of 2018-19 and 2020-21, it was not uncommon to see one full-back playing an inverted role in central midfield during build-up, while the other would push up and support his winger,’ Anka noted.

‘Left-back Daley Blind was essential to how Ajax built attacks, able to drop deep to create a back three before deciding how to progress the ball into central midfield.

‘Ajax would employ passing triangles and player rotations between the left-back, central midfielder and winger, or Blind would pass forwards into the half-spaces himself.’

Ten Hag’s use of Diogo Dalot as a multi-functional full-back was somewhat stunted against Everton given the absence of Raphaël Varane,as explained in a previous article.

Having said that, Tyrell Malacia and Dalot had started to seem acquainted with their roles of filling in midfield zones. Dalot in particular had even become comfortable stepping up and across into the no.10 area – which may be explained through him having experienced Premier League football much more than Malacia.

So with the varied news links to players of this position in general, where does United’s right-back position stand in the immediate and long-term future?

To start, United were strongly linked with a late move for Barcelona’s Sergiño Dest in the summer. United had revolved their transfer strategy around Ten Hag and his attachments to Dutch football. Dest was just another of several players to play under United’s new manager who found themselves rumoured to make the move to Old Trafford.

The fact Ten Hag was rumoured to be eyeing a late move for a full-back shows his eagerness to fill the position with a player who is familiar playing in the particular system and who is of adequate quality.

Dalot has, however, started the season in fine form, consistently being one of the best performers on the pitch.

The 23-year-old has thus caught the attention of several major European clubs. His contract is set to expire in June 2023, although United do hold the option to extend by a further year. Reports are circulating that his agency is beginning to scout out potential new clubs. If this is a genuine attempt to locate fresher pastures for their client rather than mere negotiation tactics for a potential renewal, then United will need to adjust their plans accordingly.

Nonetheless, United are set to tie Dalot down to a longer term contract (or at least offer improved and extended terms) in the New Year following Ten Hag’s request.
Hypothetically, if Dalot is to refuse a renewal and organise a move to a different club – say, Juventus – then United’s use of the automatic one-year contract extension will have to be used smartly.

That’s to say, it is imperative that Dalot would be sold this summer if they are aiming to avoid another Jesse Lingard or Paul Pogba situation.

If that were to be the case, then Dalot would most likely not be the only right-back to be seeing the last of Old Trafford – Aaron Wan-Bissaka almost appears to be the forgotten man.

Although he has been injured for a few games, Ten Hag seems to be very content with letting the South Londoner depart whenever the opportunity arises. Bought to play in Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s counter-attacking set-up, Wan-Bissaka’s technical capabilities are too inept to fit Ten Hag’s ball-possession and attacking philosophies.

Ten Hag announced today that he is happy for Victor Lindelöf and Malacia to deputise the position too, seeming to push Wan-Bissaka even further down the pecking order.

The well-sourced Muppetiers recently revealed, ‘Wan-Bissaka will be leaving the club. It’s basically been told: “It’s over for you here.” The club and player agreed that he will be let go this summer, with Ethan Laird coming in [to the first team].’

With Wan-Bissaka set to leave, as the quote suggests, Laird could enter the fold of the United first team. The youngster has been viewed by many as having a skyhigh ceiling; he has already impressed this season on loan at Queens Park Rangers in the Championship. QPR’s goalkeeper, Semi Dieng, recently told his club’s website, ‘He [Laird] has been outstanding.’

With his signature powerful and fearless runs and direct nature, Laird could slot nicely into Ten Hag’s system.

The limiting factor: his severe injury proneness.

Laird missed his first 90 minutes for QPR on Friday having sustained muscle tightness during the previous match against Reading, in which he was withdrawn before half-time.

Still only 21-years-old, Laird could yet manage to overcome these injuries and fulfil his potential as a United player. But – United have already experienced the plights of having an injury prone defender with huge potential in Axel Tuanzebe. Tuanzebe is set to depart the club following his contract expiry this coming summer.

Laird will be desperate to shake off this latest sideline spell and prove to Ten Hag that he can remain fit and available for long periods of time.

Wan-Bissaka’s imminent departure and Laird’s unreliability could, therefore, be the reasons why the media are now linking United with top prospect Malo Gusto of Lyon.

This year, Gusto has emerged as one of the best young right-backs in Europe and has registered six assists in his 35 appearances so far for the French club. According to Graeme Bailey of 90min, Barcelona and United have both been tracking the 19-year-old and have already enquired about his future.

Given his young age and potential cut-price transfer fee (his contract is set to expire in June 2024) fitting Glazernomics, Gusto would join the club as an excellent option to compete with Dalot for a starting role.

For Ten Hag, finalising his right-back options is vital. And there is the feeling that it could be a prominent point of discussion before the next transfer window with many moving parts at play.

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