This photo is kind of adorable. - Laurence Griffiths
Against Reading, Sir Alex Ferguson may have (re-) discovered a worthwhile attacking option at his disposal.
A week later, Manchester United's 1-1 draw with Real Madrid at the Bernabeu is still a vivid memory. It was a glorious encounter and a night where many were heroes against the narrative. United fans, though, could be forgiven if the memories from Monday's mundane 2-1 FA Cup defeat of Reading aren't as distinct a week from now. However, if pressed for something to recall, many would likely point to Nani's (hopefully not temporary) return to form against the Royals.
After coming on as a substitute late in the first-half for an injured Phil Jones, the Portuguese winger became a genuine match-winner on the night and this was tangibly evident by his decisive goal and assist. For manager Sir Alex Ferguson though, perhaps the biggest takeaway is that the dynamism displayed by the right-sided duo of Nani and winger Antonio Valencia (who switched to right-back after Jones went off) is an exciting attacking option at his disposal.
Nearly immediately after being substituted on, Nani audaciously smashed a volley off the far post from a slightly acute angle near the top of the box. Martin Tyler described it as "an instant reminder of the talent that the wide man from Portugal has." This moment came after a Danny Welbeck cross from the right -- space created because the winger sucked the Reading right-back near him at the half-way line -- was cleared to an unmarked Nani. The 'wide man from Portugal' astutely took up an inside position -- an area of the pitch where he's quite comfortable operating in -- after Welbeck went wide and before firing on goal.
As the match wore on, United's right-side became the main source of creativity. Nani was comfortable trying to beat his marker to the outside while he also was eager cut inside to either shoot on goal with his left-foot or to play quick 'one-twos' with his fellow attackers. When in good form, the United winger is lethal doing this. His forays inward often dragged Reading left-back Nicky Shorey with him and as a result, this created space for Valencia to move forward into. This was similar to the key role played by the Ecuadorian in last season's 5-0 demolition of Wigan Athletic.
Diagram 1: Space often opened up for Valencia in attack when Nani dragged Shorey inside with him.
There's been plenty of discussion in recent months about Valencia's struggles. The cliff-notes version of this is that he simply seems to lack the confidence to consistently take on markers anymore (or something like that) -- and when he does try, he rarely beats the defender nor does he create enough separation so that he has enough time to send in an accurate cross.
Against Reading, from the Ecuadorian's right-back role after Nani came on, he seemed much more comfortable when he had space to arrive into. Rather than receive the ball near the touchline and then immediately make a predictable move to beat his marker to the outside prior to quickly being closed down -- something, though, he does exceptionally well when in good form -- Valencia now had time on the ball. And he was generally effective. His assist for Nani's goal was a simple square pass but that calm moment resulted from the time and space he had -- created from the Portuguese's movement into the box.
Valencia's influence from this role was nowhere near the tremendous performance he provided against Wigan last season. However, it was a positive seeing him comfortable and contributing again. More exciting though, was Nani's superb performance -- form that was reminiscent of the impressive first-halves of his 2010/11 and 2011/12 campaigns. And collectively, the duo were dynamic against Reading and the incisiveness they provided should be noted by Ferguson.
It's very important, though, to understand that this is only an option at the gaffer's disposal and not the first-choice right-side combination he should regularly be selecting. Against good teams, it's too frail defensively and this would relegate Rafael -- arguably one of United's top players this season -- to the bench. However, against teams where the Reds have a possession and/or territory advantage in games, but still struggle to be incisive enough in attack, this is an option worth trying. Reading -- a team who averages the least amount of possession in the Premier League and is sixth most at playing in their own half of the pitch -- is the sort of team to try this against. So was Wigan last season. A right-sided duo or Nani and Valencia have shown that they can be a dynamic option in these circumstances.