According to WhoScored.com, Manchester United’s style of play is characterised by “attacking down the left”. This has become a well-documented phenomenon over the previous few months; why do a team with a such a wealth of offensive talent focus their efforts so heavily down one side of the park?
Is it a deliberate choice from the manager? Unlikely. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has displayed a limited amount of tactical nous throughout his time in charge at Old Trafford, so it’s far-fetched to believe he is behind the decision. If it was his idea, surely things would have changed as inconsistent results piled up?
So it must be the players. United have attackers that typically prefer playing on the left hand side of the park – Marcus Rashford likes to hug the left touchline before cutting in onto his favoured right foot, Anthony Martial drifts left when he plays through the middle and star-man Bruno Fernandes creates the majority of his chances from the left third of the pitch. Even Paul Pogba (allegedly) enjoys playing on the left of a midfield three.
So if these players prefer to play on the left, what’s the issue? Well, problems with one-dimensional attacking are bad enough. If teams know where United are going to attack from, it’s easier to defend against. Why else would they struggle to break the opposition down until later in games, when they tire? Let’s take a look at some of United’s recent league fixtures.
These are the positions that United shot from in their 3-1 victory against West Ham. Not a single one came from the right third of the pitch; they’re all from central or left positions. But where were the chances created from? Perhaps the build-up play came from the right? Alas, no. The picture below illustrates that of United’s fourteen chances created, only two came directly from the right wing.
It was the same in the previous comeback win over Southampton. Ten chances created. Again, a mere two came from the right. United had 15 shots in this game, and only one came from a position right of the six yard box. This is a damningly one-sided approach to football.
However, this isn’t actually predicament in itself. The single greatest issue United create for themselves is that of isolating Mason Greenwood on the right wing.
Now, Greenwood is a terrific asset. The fact he is both two-footed and extremely clever for a player his age means he can come inside and join build-up play which is taking place on the left. That isn’t a problem. He isn’t a focal point for attacks, though, and that is a problem. I’ve said for a number of months now that Marcus Rashford would be a better option from the bench, and his recent performance are proving this point. He continues to start, however, and continues to have attacks directed through his position. His continual errors and poor decision making are costing United goals and points.
Greenwood is a smarter player than Rashford despite being a number of years his junior. He doesn’t make as many errors, is more clinical in front of goal and doesn’t give away idiotic fouls every other minute. And yet, with play focused so heavily down the left, Rashford gets more of the ball.
Greenwood is forced to come much further inside than would be desirable in order to get involved. The dilemma isn’t that he himself can’t handle the positional change; he played as an out-and-out striker throughout his youth career and it is hoped that will be his long-term position at United. The problem is that this crowds the left side of the pitch. With Rashford, Martial, Fernandes and Greenwood all operating in the same space, it’s easier for opposing defenders to shut them out and force them away from goal.
Greenwood needs to be given more of a key role. He has proven himself to be a reliable and consistent performer despite his age, and his ability shines through on a much more regular basis than Rashford’s. If the ball is on the other side of the park, though, Greenwood can’t have as much of an impact as necessary.
So United need to come up with a solution. In short, they need to find a way of spreading out their attacks. I doubt this will happen under Solskjaer, as he simply doesn’t have the footballing brain to devise a counter-plan. A new manager may be needed before these problems are solved, and that time can’t come soon enough for United.
Perhaps Fernandes needs to mix things up more? Greenwood and Rashford could switch wings during games to give each an ample opportunity to impress? Or someone could give the coaches a manual on making a football team less predictable? Whatever the answer, United need to find it fast if they are to salvage a season thrown into turmoil by their Champions League exit.