Manchester United: Improved form down to better wing play

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 07: Cameron Borthwick-Jackson of Manchester United closes down Willian of Chelsea during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on February 7, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 07: Cameron Borthwick-Jackson of Manchester United closes down Willian of Chelsea during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on February 7, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images) /

In games against Derby County, Stoke City and Chelsea, Manchester United looked good in wide areas.

It came as no surprise when Manchester United opened the scoring against Chelsea following a cross into the penalty area from a wide position.

At the heart of United’s mini-revival, at least in terms of performances, has been improved play out wide. Both full-backs and wingers have been instrumental to United’s much brighter and more attacking displays in the last week.

Against Chelsea, Matteo Darmian and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson played higher up the pitch than full-backs have at any point previously during Louis van Gaal’s tenure. Width, which is often cited as a classic United quality, has been severely lacking since the Dutchman took over at the start of last season.

At Stamford Bridge, however, Manchester United’s opener came on the back of a fine Borthwick-Jackson cross, just as it did against Stoke. The 19-year-old has looked tremendously composed at left-back, is capable of whipping in dangerous deliveries, and offers a lot of natural attacking width.

On the opposite side, Darmian – who put in his strongest performance in months against Chelsea– stretched the pitch to great effect. His teasing cross on the stroke of half-time warranted better from United’s players inside the box.

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At least until Luke Shaw returns from injury, the aforementioned duo should retain their places at full-back. Van Gaal, based on the last three matches, should recognise the value of having a left-footed left-back and a right-footed right-back.

Far too often this season, Darmian and Ashley Young have been deployed on the left-hand side. The Italian, in particular, tucks in regularly, leaving United without any real outlet in wide areas. Against Liverpool, he ceded far too much space when he started at left-back but took up much better positions when he switched to right-back.

The contrast in the last three games has therefore been striking. Against Derby, Borthwick-Jackson and Guillermo Varela saw a lot of the ball on the flanks. Four days later, in the win vs. Stoke, which was by far United’s best display of the season, the former picked up an assist. Against Chelsea, Borthwick-Jackson and Darmian were Manchester United’s two best players on the pitch.

Coupled with the form of United’s full-backs are the performances of Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard. Martial, who moved to the left wing in order to accommodate Wayne Rooney, has been excellent as a left-sided forward. Lingard, who is treated disparagingly by some United fans, has a goal or an assist in his last three games.

Against Derby and Stoke, Martial was named man of the match, scoring one goal and picking up three assists in the process. What makes him such a special player is that he has the perfect blend of technical ability and athleticism, when so often young players possess one or the other.

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Chelsea paid close attention to him and, on a small pitch, managed to limit the space he had to run into. Yet only a superb save from Thibaut Courtois stopped him from scoring a brilliant solo goal when he charged into the area and cut in to shoot on his right foot. That has become his signature move in the last few weeks and is something that defenders seem powerless to prevent.

Lingard, on the right, is a player at the opposite end of the spectrum to Martial. The 22-year-old is bright, industrious and does most things well – but he lacks a bit of magic and invention. That hasn’t mattered during the last few weeks, though. Lingard scored a good goal vs. Newcastle, created what was essentially the winner vs. Derby, and scored United’s first goal of the game against Stoke and Chelsea.

The Warrington-born attacker, like Martial, is not a traditional winger. He tends to move inside off his flank, opening up space for the right-back in the process. Unlike Martial, though, he is not the type of winger who will burst past three defenders and pose a threat throughout the game. Instead, he is a player who contributes in ‘moments’ – the odd goal, the odd neat pass or the odd dangerous cross.

With a 4-2-3-1, or some variant of it, Van Gaal’s go-to formation this season, it would be fair to expect width to be a prominent feature of United’s play. Perhaps on account of the rigidity and structure that the Dutchman prescribes, it hasn’t been the case.

In the last three games, though, Manchester United’s full-backs have been more adventurous and the wingers have taken centre stage. A knock-on effect of the pitch being stretched in that way is that Juan Mata – the archetypal No. 10 – finally has the space he needs to thrive. It’s arguably no coincidence that he has rediscovered some form at the same time that United appear to be playing with more width.

Next: Manchester United held to a draw by Chelsea

At any rate, the main reason why United have looked more exciting and daring in the last fortnight is because, for whatever reason, wide play seems to once again be a priority.