Manchester United absolutely love a left winger, it seems.
Marcus Rashford has predominantly played in the position this season, racking up 30 goals across all competitions. Meanwhile Jadon Sancho has endured a patchy campaign despite occasionally having the odd glimmer of a £75m player, just as Alejandro Garnacho burst onto the scene to excite fans. Even the only centre forward at the club, Anthony Martial, is arguably more effective playing off the left flank.
So why on Earth would Erik ten Hag want to add another left winger? It is a question that many readers will have asked off the back of the recent report that the Dutchman was keen to add such a player, and it is one that warrants some examination.
Perhaps the most natural conclusion is simply that the aforementioned poor form of Sancho (not to mention the difficulty in getting Martial onto the pitch, whatever the position), has prompted Ten Hag to shake up his options.
Given the wages the pair are on, that seems somewhat unlikely. United paid and continue to pay good money for Sancho and Martial, and few clubs would be willing to offer anywhere near the £600,000-a-week the two take home combined. Fewer still would have any interest in helping The Red Devils recoup the £125m spent in transfer fees on them. Off the back of the sort of campaigns these players have had, finding suitors willing to offer even half of that would be extremely difficult.
And Sancho, despite earning the ire of a good portion of the fanbase lately, has still been Ten Hag’s go-to option on the left flank in recent months. Considerable effort has been made to play the Englishman into form and, at 23 years of age, time is on the player’s side. It is probably worth pointing out that Pep Guardiola has a habit of making every exciting winger who crosses his path look significantly worse before turning them into world-beaters twelve months later. Considering the parallels between the two manager’s usage of wide players, it not unthinkable that Jadon Sancho could undergo a similar transformation.
It is slightly more difficult to make a case for Anthony Martial. At 27, the feeling is that he ought to be enjoying the peak of his powers. Instead, the Frenchman had no involvement in the FA Cup final against Manchester City after picking up his sixth separate injury of the season. Saturday’s match was the 54th time Martial has been unavailable to his club side through injury in the past three seasons. He has not completed 90 minutes of football since January 2021.
The flip side, however, is that such an appalling fitness record makes his £250,000-a-week deal unpalatable for any potential suitors. With his contract expiring in 2024, it will likely be a case of simply parting ways after another year of Martial playing the odd handful of minutes up top or out wide, at times even exciting fans before the inevitable disappointment ensues.
In Garnacho, at least, there is plenty of hope. The Argentine has firmly established himself in the senior squad and looks set for a bright future at Old Trafford, having signed a long term contract a couple of months ago. But at 18 years of age, it would be unlikely to see Erik ten Hag lean so heavily on the speedster at this stage of his career.
Not that he absolutely needs to – after all, Rashford will be starting every game for which he is fit. But as The Telegraph insists that a left winger is on the agenda for Man United, it may prompt questions over exactly where he will be starting.
The club are desperate to increase their firepower, having ambled to 58 goals in the Premier League this season – a full 30 fewer than Arsenal. That was despite creating 2.9 big chances per game to The Gunners’ 2.6. It is clear that a new striker is needed, and the club are working hard to bring one in.
Unfortunately, the top-tier targets look to be completely out of reach, with Harry Kane and Victor Osimhen at clubs with famously stubborn decision-makers and likely to be priced out of moves altogether. Instead the club are looking to the like of Randal Kolo Muani, although Rasmus Hojlund – scorer of nine Serie A goals this season – appears the more likely target.
Should the Dane indeed be making his way to Old Trafford this summer, it seems quite unlikely that he will be expected to play 60-odd games in his first season at the club. While athletically impressive and technically gifted, there remains a rawness in his game that will take patience and experience to iron out. And given the lack of other options, it could well be that the plan is to use Rashford up front more regularly in order to fit another goalscorer in.
Rashford led the line against City, as he has done in a number of matches this season, and spoke to Gary Lineker before the game about the strides he felt he has made this season playing in the centre forward position. Should he be able to improve further in the central role, he could be the ‘in-house’ solution to United’s striker woes. As a forward-facing player, Rashford has plenty of work to do in order to hone his play with his back to goal, although depending on how Ten Hag approaches his team’s setup next season, that could prove less of an issue.
The Dutchman has played with an incredibly broad variety of centre forwards in his career, from technical target men like Sebastien Haller, to false nines like Dusan Tadic, and pure poachers such as an ageing Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. He could feasibly attempt to use Rashford as an on-the-shoulder striker next term, freeing up the left wing slot for another goalscorer.
Ten Hag’s interest in Cody Gakpo last summer would suggest that this may well have been something the Dutchman had been considering since he first took the job. But with Gakpo now a Liverpool player, there are not many players that immediately spring to mind as alternatives.
Rafael Leao has been linked with a number of Premier League clubs including Man United over the course of the season. The Portugal star signed a new contract with AC Milan last weekend however, taking himself off the market entirely. Khvicha Kvaratskhelia (or simply ‘Kvaradonna’ to his fans) has also been linked with The Red Devils, although with Napoli having only signed him last summer, it would be hard to imagine Aurelio De Laurentiis making a pursuit for the Georgian any easier than one for Osimhen.
If we also rule out some of the more outlandish transfer stories that tend to pop up in tow with the silly season (read: Neymar, Vinicius Junior, and Kylian Mbappe), then there seems to be just as much of a dearth in suitable options for a left winger as there are for a striker.
The transfer window is yet to open, but Man United appear determined to act with haste and decisiveness this time around. It is perhaps for this reason that the club are willing to be a little more flexible on the exact player profiles they are looking at.
But as of now, there is little to support The Telegraph’s claim that a left winger is among Erik ten Hag’s priorities this summer. The immediate futures of a couple of Manchester United stars, as well as the manager’s own tactical ideas heading into next season, could see that change.
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