You could be forgiven for thinking that Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson is a man with few problems on his plate as his side cruises to the league title this season, but the form, or rather lack thereof of his three wingers this term – Nani, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young – will not have escaped his attention and few could blame him for looking at other options elsewhere in the summer, with one of the trio destined to depart Old Trafford.
With a 15-point lead at the top of the Premier League table as the campaign heads into the home straight, United have established a commanding lead over rivals City in what has quickly turned into a procession more than a title race of any sort. The club have won 26 of their 32 league fixtures and scored 73 goals all told, nine more than nearest rivals in that regard, Arsenal. They’ve failed to score in just two league games all season, again, a league best, yet the feeling persists that this is not a side operating at full capacity and there’s more juice to be squeezed from it.
Of course, Ferguson has already made his intentions clear by moving for Crystal Palace wide midfielder Wilfried Zaha in January, with the England international set to arrive before the start of next season, but you sense this won’t be the only major change in personnel when looking at the club’s attacking strength in depth. Even though £15m is a large sum to pay for a relatively inexperienced player like Zaha, it’s a sign that Ferguson is not completely happy with how his attack has shaped up this year.
It seems odd to complain too much when the side have achieved their ultimate objective this season, to win back the league title from City, particularly when they’ve made such a professional and in all honesty, an easy job of it, but the Scot’s greatest attribute is his will to win and his desire to keep evolving the side; he’s acutely aware that if you stand still, something which former rivals Arsenal and to an extent even City and Chelsea have been guilty of, you only risk going backwards in the long run.
When it comes to recruiting new blood, the terraces at Old Trafford have been crying out for a battling holding midfielder ever since Owen Hargreaves took up semi-retirement and they’ve never fully replaced Roy Keane. With every central midfielder capable of putting his foot in the tackle quickly hailed as the solution to the club’s evident problem the past five years, it certainly remains a top priority to supporters, but apparently not one that’s on Ferguson’s agenda.
Portuguese playmaker Nani is arguably the most divisive of the three, but whenever handed an extended run in the side in his favoured right-sided position, his record speaks for itself. Nevertheless, after featuring 29 league games last season, during which he made 10 assists and scored eight goals, he’s been reduced to just 10 outings from which he’s made two assists and scored just as many times.
The grumblings are that a contractual situation is the root cause of Nani falling out of the picture, certainly more so than any lack of faith on Ferguson’s part and it’s worth noting that when the side required a spark against top quality opposition, such as Real Madrid and Chelsea in the last month, he’s turned to the 26-year-old in his time of need, even if his marginalisation provides just a small insight into the manager’s ruthless nature.
Ecuador international Valencia is the biggest disappointment, though, with the 27-year-old setting up just four goals in 24 appearances in the Premier League so far as he grapples with his form in what has transpired to be his worst season at Old Trafford to date. This lack of end product, with not a solitary strike to his name, has seen swathes of supporters turn on the man who ignited their late title surge last season to the tune of 13 assists. Where there was once directness, now hesitancy has crept in and he’s starting to look very limited and one-dimensional when placed up against his peers.
This leaves just England winger Young to contend with, a player that has never fully convinced at United or really won over the vast majority of the crowd and while Nani’s temperament and consistency remains a divisive topic, the overall quality of Young’s play is not thought to be good enough for what’s required. His crossing has never been poorer and the way he often cuts in off the left flank onto his right foot each and every time is a simple move which many defenders have grown wise to, reducing his impact to just three assists and no goals in a stop-start campaign where he has featured just 19 times.
The summer arrivals of Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa have both added a new dimension to the club’s play, capable of the fluid, flowing moves that eluded them in the past, while they still stand a chance of beating last year’s tally of 89 league goals in their remaining six games. Moreover, the impact this has had on the side and their shape has directly contributed to United becoming less reliant on wing play than before. Danny Welbeck is often preferred in big games out wide now not only for his work-rate, but his tactical awareness, despite carrying little to no goal threat, as Ferguson’s side have tinkered with 4-4-1-1 and 4-3-3 systems all season. This has seen Rooney unsure as to his regular starting role, with van Persie the top man up front for the foreseeable future.
It could be that the team are slowly moving away from traditional areas of attacking play and to a more continental approach based around possession and quick interchanges in and around the box. With Zaha already on the way, and the future of all three wingers in the squad up for serious debate, for their lack of end product and goal threat in the final third, it would be no surprise at all if Ferguson were to move for another wide man, even though he appears to be looking for alternatives means of threat at the moment as he seeks to add more cutting edge and precision to a side reliant on the goals of their Dutch talisman.