Andy Mitten column: The position Manchester United must buy in this summer – and why it's so important
There was no shortage of wistful Manchester United fans watching the 1999 treble winners hammer Bayern Munich in Sunday’s charity friendly at Old Trafford, especially when David Beckham was pinging in perfect crosses.
Some desperate fans even suggested that he’d be good enough to play for United now. It’s the type of comment that gets traction online, even if it’s not true. There are demands that United need a similar type of player, though.
Beckham played on the right wing in a 4-4-2, but United only used that formation once last season – and that was after PSG caused so many problems at the start of the game in Paris that they reverted to the formation which had served them so well historically. Beckham was a perfectionist.
“He was Class of ’92, I was Class of ’93,” former United academy player (and now a manager) Ashley Westwood tells FFT. “He lived 100 metres from the Cliff training ground and would return at night, hang two tyres from the goal stanchions on the indoor pitch and practise hitting the balls towards those.
“Our warped dressing room mentality meant we laughed at him, even though he was the fittest player at the club. We thought it was weird because nobody else was doing it. We were wrong and he got his rewards.”
Westwood didn’t play 115 times for England, but he did play in England’s top four divisions, become assistant manager to Michael Appleton at Portsmouth and Blackburn, before managing Bengaluru to the Indian title twice in three years. He completed his UEFA pro-licence alongside former United first-teamers and was Teddy Sheringham’s boss in Calcutta last season.
United have a great history of No.7s, several who played on the right, but the role has changed and often there isn’t a role. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer used seven different formations last season – and Jose Mourinho used two other different ones to make it nine for the season.
Solskjaer’s favoured formation when the team was winning was an attacking 4-3-3, or a 4-2-3-1 in United's losing spell at the end of the season.
“The No.7 is dying in football,” says Westwood. “The days of United playing 4-4-2 with two strikers feeding off crosses has gone. Burnley try it at times, Brighton try a 4-4-1-1 when they want to stay compact.
“Liverpool play three forwards and go narrow, but they utilise full-backs as wingers. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson are almost like wingers, they start high and wide.”
Liverpool’s 97 points were nearly enough to win the league. United were only in the top four after one of the 38 games last season, a February win at Fulham.
“Manchester United fans might be crying out for a player who plays on the right, but it’s better if the club first establishes a style of playing,” opines Westwood.
One aspect of Solskjaer’s management which United’s players initially liked was that he told them to focus on their own strengths rather than, like Mourinho, more on the opposition. That has since changed.
“United were a 4-3-3 when Solskjaer arrived, with one sitting midfielder allowing Paul Pogba to get forward. United had three narrow forwards with Marcus Rashford as a central striker. Anthony Martial was on the left but there were still changes on the right – Juan Mata or Jesse Lingard trying to use the full-backs. But because United have had problems with their full-backs they couldn’t stick to that system.
“Ashley Young has been criticised, Antonio Valencia injured. If Luke Shaw gets injured they haven’t got a natural left-footed player to get down the wing to get the crosses in. Playing Diogo Dalot on the left isn’t the same since he cuts in with his right foot, so United don’t get the width that Shaw gives.
“United’s priority should be a right-full-back, because if you get that right you don’t need a right-sided midfielder. That’s why City spent so much on full-backs – people laughed when they spent £50 million on Kyle Walker, but their reasoning was sound.
“When you play the best of the best, a lot of the ball will end up with the full-backs. The ball gets circulated through them so their distribution needs to be good. Liverpool have done so well because they’ve come up with those two full-backs.
“Towards the end of the season Solskjaer tried to counter what the other team were doing. Liverpool don’t do that, they play how they play. Tottenham are similar. They might make a slight change of playing three at the back, but you know what they are going to do - they go 4-2-3-1 with Eriksen, Son, Kane, Dele and Lucas Moura rotating through those key attacking positions. Liverpool and Spurs have their identity nailed.”
United used eight different players on the right this season: Mata, Lingard, Young, Rashford, Dalot, Alexis Sanchez, Pogba and Ander Herrera.
“Lingard prefers to play as a 10 where he’s running through the middle with the game in front of him,” says Westwood. “Mata’s decent, but he isn’t the most mobile defensively. If you come up against Man United and Mata is on the right of a four, then you’d tell your left back to get forward.”
Sanchez has flopped, Herrera has left, Young is 33, Dalot inexperienced, Pogba prefers a central role, and so does Rashford.
So you can see why United are keen on a right-sided midfielder, but where to find them? Westwood points out that it won’t be easy.
“There are very few right-wingers around. The players are more like an inside-forward with an overlapping full-back. A right-sided midfielder needs to provide a lot of energy to keep the defensive shape, because you have huge responsibility in a 4-4-2 to compact the spaces between the units so that the opposing No.10s can’t hurt you. You provide width and assists when you get on the ball.
“Man City have a different variation with Bernardo Silva on the right. The full-backs stay narrow and compact to provide defensive security for Silva and Sterling out wide. That means City almost have five up front in the defensive third.”
United will be linked with a hundred players this summer and Westwood has made a compelling case for United to buy a right-back to improve their attacking options, let alone their defence. In his mind it is one of the best investments that any team can make.
“A top full-back will play almost every game regardless of the formation in front,” he notes. Over to United’s recruitment team...