For much of Sir Alex Ferguson's 26+ year reign, Manchester United's wingers have been inspirational for the club. They've also been a huge source of creativity in attack. The current squad has a talented trio but none are firing on all cylinders at the moment. This is a huge problem.
A season ago, Manchester United's wingers were flying -- especially Antonio Valencia. From January through May, the Ecuadorian was pretty much unplayable and his performances were influential enough to where he was voted the club's player of the season by his teammates. Perhaps the most extraordinary moment he provided was this match-winning 86th minute smash at Blackburn Rovers in April:
* This gif from Beautifully Red might be a better look at the goal and celebration. When have you ever seen Tony V celebrate like this?!
Nani, too, had a strong start to the season. His performances on the right-wing were vital then as Valencia spent much of the first-half of the season injured. This venomous strike against Chelsea in September is a particularly memorable moment:
2011/12 was Ashley Young's debut season at the club and early on, he also put in some fine shifts, even if his form faded as the season wore on. He introduced himself to the Old Trafford faithful and in front of the Stretford End with this delicious curling effort in the 8-2 August rout of Arsenal:
Things have changed though. Suddenly, Manchester United have a winger problem.
It was always going to be difficult to play a clean passing game at a cold and snowy White Hart Lane and against a genuine Champions League qualification contender in Tottenham Hotspur. Therefore, it's quite reasonable that manager Sir Alex Ferguson wanted to keep his team's shape compact and hit Spurs on the break. This is something United have done well this season in big games. The gaffer, after the match, pretty much admitted that this was his side's basic approach:
"We had the opportunity to kill them off on the counterattack but our final ball let us down."
- Ferguson | Source: MUTV
Ferguson is right, United's final ball generally let them down. The root of the problem, though, was more of a systemic issue than it was individual failures -- the Red Devils did not have wingers surging down the touchline on the counterattack like they did away to both Manchester City and Chelsea. Michael Cox did well to describe some of United's problem against Tottenham in a piece for the Guardian:
United were seconds from victory but had invited continual pressure without offering the counter-attacking threat that vindicated previous defensive-minded performances this season. With their focus on Bale, combined with Lennon's crucial contributions, United's lack of flying wingers was conspicuous: Ashley Young is injured, Nani is out of favour and the substitute Antonio Valencia has been poor in recent months. United only managed two attempts on target, their lowest figure of the season, primarily because they did not have men to carry the ball forward on the break to create chances – Ferguson needed the type of threat he had been so determined to prevent Tottenham showcasing.
Valencia and Nani were available for Sunday's match but as Cox mentions, neither were trusted enough to be chosen from the start. Instead, in nominal roles out wide, central-midfielder Tom Cleverley and centre-forward Danny Welbeck were deployed in wide (-ish) positions. The former's industry was admirable as he played a difficult hybrid shuttler/central-midfield sort of role while the latter's pace and movement was a threat on the break. Neither, though, provided genuine width -- which is what this current side is clearly most comfortable with in quick transitions. Even when there was opportunity for the full-backs to overlap when both Cleverley and Welbeck were in inside positions, there was a lack of understanding and combination play rarely materialized. Attack after attack sputtered and this contributed heavily to the 'final ball' letting United down. Things weren't completely hopeless though as it was Welbeck -- from an inside left position -- that switched the ball to Cleverley -- in an inside right position -- prior to the latter's terrific cross for Robin van Persie's clinical header. This, though, was pretty much it for genuine scoring chances.
The form of the Valencia has been gradually declining as the season has wore on and the most common sentiment in Twitter-verse seems to be that he simply lacks confidence and the audacity to take on his marker -- something he did to such devastating effect last season. That explanation lacks a defining quality but it's generally understood if one watches United week-in-and-week-out. However, he does have a tremendous understanding with right-back Rafael and this was vital in some lethal counterattacking moves in matches against Chelsea, Arsenal, and City. Even though the Ecuadorian was far from unplayable in any of those matches, his availability to always receive near the right touchline was important because this had the trickle-down effect of horizontally stretching the attacking space for his teammates. It's sad, though, that his form has become so poor that he's no longer trusted to even provide this.
A season ago, in 27 league appearances, Valencia produced 4 goals and 13 assists. This season, that rate has massively dipped as he's yet to score while he's only provided for 4 goals. His shots per game are down (1.0/gm to 0.6/gm), he's being dispossessed more (1.1/gm to 1.5/gm), he's creating less chances (2.4/gm to 1.5/gm), he's sending in less amount of accurate crosses (1.7/gm to 1.2/gm), and his crossing accuracy rate has declined (25.2% to 19.6%). Football statistics are limited in their usefulness in regards to analysis but by any measure, whether that is subjective or objective, it's clear that the Ecuadorian is currently a worse player than he was a year ago.
Nani's decline is arguably much more drastic. He's only featured 7 times this season so it's not too useful to compare his statistics from last year with this campaign. The limited sample size does hint at a massive decline in productivity though. For the Portuguese international, there is some context to consider as it may be a big factor in his poor play.
It's public knowledge that Nani and United are far apart on agreeing to terms for a contract extension. This has likely been a factor in Ferguson limiting his playing time, even when the winger has been healthy. It was pretty telling when Ferguson selected Young -- who had just returned from injury and had not featured in two months -- over Nani for always challenging tie at Chelsea. A lack of regular games, whether it is due to the contract situation and/or injuries, has likely significantly contributed to the talented attacker being in such poor form.
Young, too, despite deserving much credit for performing so well in some big games this season on the left flank -- when he has been sensational on the counterattack on those occasions -- has been somewhat disappointing. If anything, he's simply following the pattern he set last season. The ceiling for the England international may not be as high as Valencia's nor Nani's but he's still clearly a talented player. What's most maddening about the player is simply his inconsistency -- it's difficult to tell what you're going to get from him on any given day and this is obviously worrying when a giant club like United is continually faced with giant fixtures. He simply hasn't been good enough.
Even though it looks as though United are about to secure the services of Wilfried Zaha, he's not a player that can be counted on to solve the current winger problems. If the deal gets done in the upcoming days, it appears that the Crystal Palace winger will be loaned back to the Championship side for the remainder of the season. Even if he were to join the squad by January's end, it would be difficult to ask a 20-year-old to come in and solve the issues out wide.
United are highly unlikely to buy another established wide player during this current January window. So then, what's the remedy to the winger woes? Quite simply, the trio of Valencia, Nani, and Young need to get better (and stay healthy). How does, and will this happen? Nobody truly knows.
The bad news is that this a huge problem because Ferguson's side is one that is so heavily reliant on their wingers for chances created -- whether that be from a possession-based and proactive approach or from a counterattacking and reactive one. When they don't have this proper width for the latter, Sunday's Tottenham match exhibited that United become a broken side.
The good news is that Valencia, Nani, and Young are clearly good players. It may only take a moment for any of these wingers to find inspiration. This weekend's FA Cup tie with Fulham will be an excellent opportunity for Valencia and Nani to find a spark to ignite their form. In addition, United may be able to get away with just one of these two wingers finding form on the right. The left-sided player tends to play narrower anyway and players like Danny Welbeck, Wayne Rooney, or Shinji Kagawa aren't terrible options out there.
Going forward, we're at the mercy of hope and if any of you have a birthday soon coming up, you may want to wish for at least one of Valencia or Nani to catch fire when you blow out your candles*. United are hugely dependent on a right-winger being able to provide width. Young will likely blow hot and cold for the remainder of the season (and perhaps for the remainder of his United and England career) so when his form dips, Ferguson can stick Shinji or Danny out on the left -- or Nani if 2011/2012 Valencia returns. United currently have a massive winger problem -- hopefully it's solved soon. If not, the Red Devils are in trouble against Real Madrid and in their quest for title #20.
* This doesn't mean to invite one of them over to your birthday party and then literally set them on fire with your candles. This won't make either play better and you'll likely be jailed for assault.