A penny for the thoughts of Sir Alex Ferguson as he settled into his seat after soaking up rapturous applause from Manchester United and Wolves fans on Saturday.
It was great to see the legendary manager back at Old Trafford, four months after he underwent surgery for a brain haemorrhage, and his presence gave the whole stadium a lift, just as it did at a recent celebration of receptionist Cath Phipps’ 50 years at the club.
During almost 27 years in charge at United, a consistent feature of Ferguson’s teams was his use of wide players. Ryan Giggs, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lee Sharpe, Andrei Kanchelskis and Antonio Valencia — to name but a few — thrilled fans as part of a 4-4-2 system. Time have changed, though; out-and-out wingers are rarer and the current United side still seeks a consistent solution on the flanks.
Indeed, the biggest surprise this season is that the area previously considered most pressing — left-back — looks least urgent. While Ashley Young remains a serviceable option, Luke Shaw has been in such good form that there are hopes he can become the player everyone thought he would when he joined the club four years ago.
He is not a winger, but Shaw is an attack-minded player who can overlap and cross well. However, will Jose Mourinho employ him as a wing-back and play a 3-5-2 or a 3-4-3? Or stick with a 4-2-3-1 formation that features just Romelu Lukaku, too often starved of service, up front? Paul Pogba, for one, feels United should be more attack-minded and less static.
On the opposite side of the pitch, right-back has become more of a problem. Antonio Valencia is the club captain and has been a fine player in his nine at the club but he, like Young, is 33 and becoming less effective as his body takes a battering. Valencia is managed carefully to prolong his longevity; he missed last week’s game vs. Young Boys, for example, and is not present in every group training session.
Signed as a winger in 2009, Valencia has made himself into a right-back. He was voted United’s player of the year by his teammates two seasons ago and is admired by Mourinho, but he is also expected to get himself into positions on the edge of the opposition area and use his strength and speed to unbalance and get past an opponent. Crossing has never been his strong suit but, in recent times, he has been more likely to pull the ball back for a teammate than centre it himself.
Valencia is not the future and waiting in the wings is Diogo Dalot, a summer signing who enjoyed an impressive debut vs. Young Boys (following a poor display for the Under-23s against a decent Reading side the previous week). The feeling at the club is that the 19-year-old is an exciting prospect, especially going forward, but he needs to improve defensively and it would help if he had a commanding, vocal central defender to play alongside.
As for attacking players further up the pitch, United have plenty. However, while Alexis Sanchez, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial, Juan Mata, Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini can play in wide areas, all would all prefer to operate centrally. Another striker, 16-year-old Mason Greenwood, is likely to be promoted to the first-team squad after Christmas.
After eight months at Old Trafford, Sanchez continues to struggle for his best form and he endured a frustrating afternoon vs. Wolves. He tries — maybe too hard? — but loses possession frequently and does not score enough goals. Perhaps he should be given a chance alongside Lukaku.
Martial started on the left in Switzerland and scored, but was back on the bench at the weekend. Scouted by Ryan Giggs as a teenager at Monaco, he is hugely talented — two-footed, fast, strong, aggressive and decent in the air — but has not been happy, though the club are loathe to let him go.
Mata has an intelligent football brain and the eye for a magnificent pass, but does not have the pace to be a winger. He is not right footed, yet often starts on the right. Lingard, meanwhile, has not scored since February, while Rashford has missed opportunities to impress after being sent off against Burnley.
What is the solution? Signing players is no guarantee of success. Willian, who plays on the right at Chelsea, wanted to join United in 2013 but the club didn’t want him, so he moved to Stamford Bridge to play under Mourinho. A year later, Angel Di Maria did arrive but failed to live up to the hype and left after one season. More recently, Mourinho wanted Croatian international Ivan Perisic, but United felt Inter were asking for too much money.
Something needs to change: Through six games this season, United’s goal difference is zero; Manchester City’s is 16, Liverpool’s 12. Ferguson’s presence on Saturday was a reminder that the great man’s best teams had the ability to outscore opponents, often with goals that originated in the widest expanses of the Old Trafford pitch.