It has not been a good week for right-wingers; not least new Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio, who has taken significant media heat for his less than conventional political views. Little wonder, given that the Italian once labelled fascist dictator Benito Mussolini a “very principled, ethical individual” who was “deeply misunderstood”. Those who died at the dictator’s hand may disagree.
But that’s a digression. Over at Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson also has a problem with his right-wing. And his left. The one-time socialist, whose team has struggled in wide areas all campaign.
The season-long patchy form and fitness of Nani, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young poses plenty of questions as the season draws to a close.
Manchester United’s FA Cup defeat to Chelsea on Monday night emphasised the problem once again, with those of a more charitable nature describing Nani’s performance as ‘rusty’. Fair enough, the Portuguese has spent the past fortnight on the sidelines.
Indeed, injury and questionable form has restricted former Sporting player to just 14 starts in all competitions this season. Hardly the progression expected of the 25-year-old after Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure in summer 2009.
Such has been the winger’s fall that Nani’s is a career on hold; at least until a summer transfer to whomever bids the highest materialises. That Ferguson was prepared to sanction the winger’s departure in the winter window, to Zenit St Petersburg of all places, should leave the player in little doubt that his future lies away from Old Trafford.
United will take far less than the £25 million Zenit reportedly bid in the winter simply to see Nani leave after a frustrating six year period in Manchester. With him will go a huge talent, too often unfulfilled.
There is a similar story, of injury and poor form, to be told about Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young this year. While Valencia’s confidence seems unswervingly shot, Young has featured far too little this season due to persistent spells on the sidelines.
Valencia, such a powerhouse during United’s unsuccessful title challenge last season, has dropped off the boil so acutely that questions about the player’s true fitness will surely be asked during the summer. Rumours that the Ecuadorian regularly plays through a mystery injury appear more prescient with each tentative performance.
There is surely far more to come from a player who contributed 15 assists last season.
Meanwhile, Young has rarely garnered positive reviews from the Stretford End masses, and can do little to change the widespread belief that his is a talent born of mediocrity. Especially if he is rarely fit enough to play – the former Aston Villa man has started just 17 games in all competitions this season. Few of them with any genuine impact, cynics might add.
Tough though the assessment, Young was hardly destined to be more than squad filler at Old Trafford, although Ferguson’s shortage in wide areas has certainly focussed the manager’s thoughts on the limited Englishman.
None of this is news, of course, although Nani’s fall from grace is all the more disappointing following a productive campaign in 2011/12. While the player’s performances have always been inconsistent, the 62-cap international contributed 12 goals and 13 assists to United’s cause as the Reds fell just short of claiming a 20th league title.
Those numbers are hard to ignore, and hugely expensive to replicate.
No wonder the manager has deployed a plethora of stars to the wings this year – many out of position. While Valencia and Nani have shared right-wing duties, Young, Ryan Giggs, Danny Welbeck, Wayne Rooney and Shinji Kagawa have each played on the left. It is not a stretch to say that few have shone.
Ferguson’s difficulty is both in finding the right blend of players for the new season, given that exciting youngster Wilfried Zaha joins from Crystal Palace on 1 July, and how to extract more from those that remain at Old Trafford. After all Zaha is completely untested at the highest level, leaving Nani’s departure to effectively weaken United’s squad.
It should come as no surprise if the Scot bolsters his wide options with another signing, although Robin van Persie’s large acquisition fee and heftier wages may restrict Ferguson’s wiggle room during the summer window.
Getting the balance right – personnel and tactics – is a lesson Ferguson may take from the season, despite United’s huge Premier League lead.
The Scot, fired up by City’s last-gasp title winning foray last May, has constructed a team that will surely reclaim domestic hegemony with something to spare. But there has also been a compromise between defensive solidity and attacking prowess; balance, and squeezing his best players into an idiosyncratic tactical construct.
Indeed, it is two new signings that have seemingly disrupted United’s wingers as much as any injury.
Kagawa, so brilliant at ’10′ behind Robert Levendowski for Borussia Dortmund, started the campaign for United in a similar position. He will almost certainly finish the campaign having been deployed wide more often than through the middle.
Meanwhile, Robin van Persie’s form and quality ensures that Ferguson’s default formation includes both the Dutchman and Rooney, even if the former Evertonian is deployed in a shadow role.
Yet, even this simple tactical compromise – deploying two strikers and not three central midfielders - caused severe knock-on effects during the early part of the campaign, where United struggled to retain clean sheets or defensive composure. That would come as the season wore on and the Scot increasingly sought to compromise width by tucking one or more winger infield.
van Persie may have won United the Premier League, but his acquisition constrained Rooney, Nani, Valencia, Kagawa, and to a lesser extent, Young.
All of which says nothing of the choices that Ferguson needs to make in central midfield, where perhaps only Michael Carrick will emerge from the season with reputation fully enhanced.
Tom Cleverley has progressed, but must surely add goals and creativity to his neat and energetic approach, if he is to fully embody Paul Scholes’ central midfield berth. Anderson, and for different reasons, Darren Fletcher, may not be seen in a United shirt beyond the summer. Scholes will certainly retire.
An acquisition – of the rampant physical central midfield type – will do Ferguson’s hopes of adding a third European triumph before retirement a significant boost.
Yet, it is on the wings where Ferguson’s deepest concern will surely lie this summer after a season or poor reliability and much reduced productivity. Injury has of course played a part, but it has always been a risky approach to leave one’s hopes and dreams to the music of chance.
The strategist in Mussolini might agree. Having been caught unaware of the coming media storm, Di Canio certainly will.