Top of the table Manchester United laboured to victory over relegation strugglers Southampton last night but an occasional lack of fluency pointed to a relatively new problem for Sir Alex Ferguson. Under his stewardship United have always been known for playing with width, either through wingers in a 4-4-2 or wide forwards in a 4-3-3 system, but against Southampton this was often lacking.
United average 26 crosses a game this season, the 4th highest in the league, but against Southampton delivered only 18 (QPR and Aston Villa have the lowest league average with 19). 11 of these crosses came from forwards Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney, both set piece takers, making the number of crosses from open play even fewer. This reflects what was a particularly narrow United side, with no player consistently providing attacking width.
United’s current squad boasts Ashley Young, Nani and Antonio Valencia as genuine wide options, yet due to either a lack of fitness or a lack of form for the aforementioned, United fielded Shinja Kagawa and Danny Welbeck in wide positions against Southampton. Both players are accustomed to filling a wide midfield berth for United, but neither plays as a winger. Kagawa is a natural playmaker preferring to take up central positions between the lines. Welbeck is a natural forward looking to pull defenders out of position with intelligent running, but ultimately aiming to get into goalscoring positions. Neither of these players looks to remain wide, both preferring to move infield.
Neither role is problematic for a wide midfield position. David Silva performs the same role for Manchester City as Kagawa, but width is maintained by Aleksander Kolarov or Gael Clichy overlapping from full back. Similarly Lukas Podolski and Theo Walcott both play as wide forwards for Arsenal, overlapped by full backs Kieran Gibbs and and Bacary Sagna. In fact contemporary football has seen a narrowing of wide players in general to offer a goal threat or provide creativity from central areas, and width has increasingly been provided by full backs. Unfortunately for Ferguson United’s full backs natural movement is actually inside the wide midfielder rather than outside, and therefore neither Patrice Evra or Phil Jones overlapped regularly.
This is a relatively unique issue for United. Most full backs, especially with modern football’s preference for narrow attackers, naturally make runs outside, or wider of, the winger or wide forward ahead of him. For most top sides – Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund – the full backs are the main source of attacking width. Yet both Evra and Rafael, United’s first choice full backs, prefer to cut into the channels then to overlap out wide.
The reason for this may be United’s use of traditional wingers. It is often pointed out that Ferguson is the only manager of Europe’s elite sides that continues to utilise traditional wingers, players that hug the touchline and deliver crosses. The width that Valencia, Young and Nani provide appear to have influenced United’s full backs, who aren’t required to provide width and therefore provide attacking support by making runs between the winger and the central midfielders.
Rafael and Evra have been at United for five and seven years respectively, and if narrow runs weren’t their natural game before they arrived, it appears to be now. But there is evidence that these habits, or instructions, have been passed to newer club members. Jones played at right full back against Southampton but is naturally a centre back or centre midfield player, and therefore his moving into central positions may be influenced by his midfield responsibilities. Yet Chris Smalling is another natural centre back occasionally played at full back for United but he too often makes runs into the channel rather than overlapping. At present only Alexander Buttner, who arrived at the club in the summer, provides natural width from full back.
This is a curious problem for United and certainly affects their tactical approach. If Ferguson does contemplate moving away from wingers he will need to retrain his full backs to overlap and provide genuine width. In theory this shouldn’t be too difficult to do, but against Southampton it was surprising just how narrow United became due to the runs of the wide midfielders and full backs. Whilst Ferguson continues to play a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 variation and use players like Kagawa and Welbeck in wide areas it seems advisable that the team is balanced by the selection of at least one natural winger.