Tag Antonio Valenica

Tag Antonio Valenica

Van Gaal’s ‘modern’ wing-backs

September 6, 2014 Tags: , , , Opinion 4 comments
featured image

Deploying a ‘wrong-footed’ winger is no longer a radical concept – in fact it is now fully mainstream. Wingers cut inside, vacate space for full-backs to run into, enabling attacking teams to get more bodies into the middle whilst retaining some width. Even lowly Sunderland regularly use inverted wingers these days. More interesting, perhaps, is a corollary now being tested at Old Trafford. Just a little deeper.

Ashley Young has deputised for the injured Luke Shaw at left wing-back this season; perhaps it is a simple stop-gap measure, and a natural one at that, considering Young’s typical role as a left winger. Yet, there is also some evidence that Louis van Gaal is entirely comfortable deploying the ‘wrong-footed’ Young at wing-backs. That it is, in fact, part of his grand design.

Consider United’s match against Swansea City for a moment, when Adnan Januzaj, a left-footed player, replaced Jesse Lingard at right wing-back. Van Gaal held plenty of alternatives to the Belgian; he could have brought Michael Keane into the centre and shifted Phil Jones to the right, or swapped Young and Januzaj’s flanks. Meanwhile, Nani, a genuine right-winger, was left on the bench.

Deploying a left footer at right wing-back seemingly makes little sense. After all, in Van Gaal’s 3-4-1-2 system, wing-backs are the sole providers of width and must be ready to cross; having to cut back eats up precious time, slowing down attacking play.

Yet, Van Gaal also asks his midfield two to offer some auxiliary width to make up for the lack of wingers in the system. Should a central midfielder vacate the centre to take the ball down the touchline, midfield could look very bare. In this scenario United’s wing-backs are a natural alternative to provide cover and fill the gap.

Wing-backs in 3-4-1-2 formation, for example, are often free to receive the ball and able to cut inside allowing central midfielders space to run into the channels. In this case being wrong-footed helps the wing-back cut in.

During early season matches Darren Fletcher has played a loose holding role, with the Scot’s partner is deployed box-to-box. Notice that Ander Herrera partnered the wrong footed Januzaj on the right in the Swansea game and Tom Cleverley was the left central midfielder near Young against Sunderland. Deliberate rather than coincidental, perhaps.

Reports that Rafael da Silva has been deemed a surplus are puzzling given that there is a dearth of right full-backs/wing-backs at Old Trafford. The lack of recruitment in this area points to the reports being fallacious. Yet, Van Gaal has a track record of retraining players in a new position. United’s back five come December could – as one example – very well include, Januzaj, and Jones, together with Marcus Rojo and Jonny Evans.

Of course, it is easy to read too much into early season developments; the trap of confusing emergency measures with innovation is obvious.

Still, the idea of an inverted wing-back cutting into the middle makes much sense. With Juan Mata deployed at number 10, and Wayne Rooney partnering Robin Van Persie up-front, a central midfielder rushing into the box only adds to the traffic, occupying the forwards’ “zone” as the Dutchman one put it. By contrast, diagonal runs from central midfield to the flank take a marker away and create space for the front three.

The security provided by an additional centre-back in Van Gaal’s system allows a central defender to act as full-back if required. Tyler Blackett, in particular, has been doing so already. Inverted wing-backs, therefore, allow the front three space, backed by a two man midfield, with a fully functional flank as well.

Otherwise there is little to suggest that 3-4-1-2 will be a long-term solution. Herrera is mobile, but lacks the defensive nous to partner Angel di Maria, while Fletcher no longer has the legs. It is hard to see how United will successfully make the transition from defence to attack when the opposition is simply willing to camp behind the ball.

At international level Van Gaal used 3-4-1-2 an emergency measure forced by Kevin Strootman’s untimely injury. At Old Trafford it is to accommodate Mata, Rooney and Van Persie in the same team. Shaw’s return, together will Rafael, will offer some genuine width and ease the transition, but it is still hard to foresee how United will break down teams happy to park the bus.

United’s lack of wingers mean that lone wing-backs can easily be defended by doubling up. Tempo will be taken out as forwards drop deep to move the ball upfield and United’s opponents will have ample time to organise into a solid unit. Shaw and da Silva are better crossers than Young or Antonio Valencia, but Premier League sides are adept at defending balls delivered into the box. Just ask David Moyes.

It is also worth noting that while a draw might well be a ‘half win’ in the World Cup, given the penalty shoot-outs on offer, too many are fatal to top teams’ hopes in the Premier League. The fact that one of Mata or Rooney will have to be deployed wide in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 adds weight to the theory that an inverted wing-back is a genuine tactical innovation by Van Gaal. Though correct-footed, we may see Rafael or Shaw cutting in at will.

Van Gaal certainly has a resumé for tactical revolution. Sir Alex Ferguson, by contrast, was always more of a fast follower than proper innovator. The Dutchman has a Fergusonian ruthless streak though and might very well shoehorn Rooney or Mata into 4-3-3. The thought lingers, however, that United cannot counter-attack its way into the top four. Nor will that extra central defender create or score enough to guarantee Champions League football next season.

Time for Fergie’s policy to bear fruit

September 15, 2010 Tags: Opinion 23 comments

The loss of Antonio Valencia to an horrific double-whammy leg break and ankle dislocation threatens to severely impact Sir Alex Ferguson’s team. Valencia has been one of Manchester United’s brightest attacking threats in the year since his £16 million transfer from Wigan Athletic, and a significant contributor to Wayne Rooney’s goal-glut.

United confirmed severity of Valencia’s injury, although never really in doubt, today as the Ecuadorian winger underwent surgery in Manchester to pin his shattered leg back together. It is now unlikely that the 25-year-old will return to competitive action this season.

Although the nature of Valencia’s injury was freak – catching his studs in the Old Trafford turf as Rangers defender Kirk Broadfoot challenged just after the hour – Ferguson’s long-term planning may now have to bear fruit.

“I just remember sliding in, getting up and looking round to see his bone sticking out,” said Broadfoot, on whom no blame is placed.

“I just tried to get the physio on as soon as possible. You see things like that on television and they are not nice, never mind up close.

“It’s not nice to see a fellow professional like that and I hope he has a fast recovery. He is a top quality player and I want to see him week in, week out again. Hopefully he can get well soon.”

Broadfoot’s hope is unlikely. Another United player, Alan Smith – who suffered a similar break – was rushed into action inside seven months. Now widely regarded as returning too early, Smith never reached the same heights again and Ferguson sold the player to Newcastle United shortly after his return.

Even on the same timeline Valencia will not play again until mid-to-late April 2011.

But as one door shuts, goes the cliché, another opens. The injury to the 25-year-old Ecuadorian winger could offer one of United’s youngster – there are plenty – the chance to step up.

While either the ever-ready but essentially limited Ji-Sung Park and ageing Ryan Giggs will fill in against Liverpool next Sunday, perhaps sooner rather than is time for Ferguson’s stated faith in youth to be rewarded. There is, after all, £10 million worth of talent in Gabriel Obertan and Bebé festering in the reserves.

The Frenchman has started just one Premier League match since his surprise £3.5 million move from Girondin’s de Bordeaux last summer. Injury hasn’t helped. While a back complaint kept the winger on the sidelines until late October last season, a minor ankle injury forced the player out of United’s pre-season tour to North America and he has only this week returned to training.

With Nani likely to switch to the right-wing, where Ferguson believes he is more effective, Obertan’s first step in repaying an ample transfer fee could be to fill in on United’s now vacant left flank. The challenge facing the Frenchman, who has only fleetingly impressed to date, is to force his way into a first team picture that has never seemed further away.

Meanwhile Bebé is yet to play for United at any level following a month of intensive conditioning work and the international break. Those supporters fortunate enough to catch the £7.4 million in action for Portugal Under-21s saw a frighteningly quick but intensely naïve forward, more comfortable in wide positions than as a central striker.

Indeed, few at Old Trafford had expected the Portuguese winger to figure in United’s first team this side of Christmas, despite the hefty fee. That timeline may now be expedited, with just three senior attacking options available to Ferguson in wide areas.

With Tom Cleverley tied to Wigan Athletic until the season’s end, Ferguson must look to United’s even more callow youth for further options. Great deeds may come from Ravel Morrison, new signing Gyliano van Velzen, Robbie Brady, Nick Ajose, and Oliver Norwood, although none has made a first team start to date, even in the Carling Cup.

Of course Ferguson could choose the safer route and deploy Giggs in wide areas once again, although the manager has long since recognised that the Welshman cannot “run up and down that bloody wing” much longer. Meanwhile, Park’s better performances have universally come from central midfield over the past year.

Ferguson’s alternate option – sadly a likely choice in Europe – is to deploy Wayne Rooney wide in a 4-3-3 formation, along with Dimitar Berbatov and Nani. Pushing Rooney wide will satisfy the manager’s desire to use three central midfielders in European football but inevitably blunt the former Evertonian’s goal threat. There is also little chance Rooney will relish being banished to the wing once more.

Perhaps the more exciting option, the one that fits with Ferguson’s stated policy, is to risk either Obertan or Bebé. With Liverpool in town on Sunday, fans have just three days before they find out.

Valencia has op, may miss pre-season

May 13, 2010 Tags: , Shorts 1 comment

Antonio Valencia, fresh from an outstanding first season at Manchester United, has endured the surgeon’s knife in a bid to cure an ankle problem. The Ecuadorian, who missed the final two games of the season, returned to his homeland to start a two month long rehabilitation programme before returning to Old Trafford in June.

With Ecuador just failing to reach the FIFA World Cup in South Africa this summer, Valencia underwent the surgery on his right ankle. The 23-year-old will wear a cast for three weeks and will only join United’s summer tour to North America and Mexico if the surgery heals to schedule.

Valencia made 49 appearances for United this season, scoring seven goals and contributing a further seven assists.

Meanwhile Michael Owen, who tore his left hamstring during the Carling Cup final at Wembley in February, is set to join up with United’s squad in the US on 12 July for pre-season training.

“The aim is to be doing everything with the lads on the first day of pre-season training,” said Owen, who remains in complete denial about his awful injury record.

“It was a shame to get the injury at Wembley. I thought it was a minor thing at first but it was obviously worse than that.

“But overall I was delighted with my first season at United. I was fit for 43 of the first 44 games.”

The former Liverpool striker scored nine times last season.