Play It Wide!

Image from The People's Person

May 19th 2013 will always be remembered as a sad day for Manchester United Football Club. It was Sir Alex Ferguson’s 1500th and final match in charge of the Red Devils and 27 trophy laden years had come to an end. The game itself, a 5-5 draw away at West Bromwich Albion epitomised everything associated with Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson’s affiliation with the club. Sir Alex drew on the great traditions set by Sir Matt Busby in the 50s and 60s, playing fast, attacking and entertaining football with wingers which became widely recognised as the Manchester United way. Pre-Munich, David Pegg and Albert Scanlon graced the Old Trafford turf and after the rebuild from the tragedy of 1958, there was George Best, revered throughout the world and winning the 1968 European Cup with our beloved club. United’s traditions continued into the 70s and 80s with the likes of Steve Coppell, Gordon Hill, Jesper Olsen and Gordon Strachan. Ryan Giggs tore defenders apart for 25 years from 1991 onwards, Andrei Kanchelskis left defenders in his wake and last but not least, Cristiano Ronaldo - well he speaks for himself.

Sean Bones, vice chairman of the Manchester United Supporters Trust says ‘we try to win games with style and flair……it is two attacking wingers, overlapping full-backs and attacking midfielders, but in reality, there is far more to it than that. It is a state of mind’. Whilst watching the boss’s last game in charge with a lump in my throat, I remember wondering if under a new regime, we will be able to uphold our great traditions of fast flowing football and width.

The appointment of David Moyes came as a huge shock to me as it did the rest of the United faithful. Perhaps Sir Alex Ferguson believed that Manchester United was the perfect platform for Moyes to fulfil his management potential at the highest level. Sir Alex told us all to get behind our new manager and believe me I tried. I will always support the manager of Manchester United but if I’m honest, something didn’t sit right with me from the off. I questioned the new manager’s credentials and lack of superiority. The only hope I clung onto was his use of wide men on the football pitch. The defining feature of his playing style as Everton boss was Leighton Baines’s crosses from the left, where his partnership with Steven Pienaar was looked upon as one of the best in the premier league at the time. I’m not one to look at things from a negative perspective. However with all due respect, I did forecast mediocre football and with Moyes aspiring to be like our noisy neighbours, we all know what happened next.

Louis Van Gaal on the other hand arrived with a better CV. With his bold personality and steeped in the traditions of the Ajax youth policy and total football, I believed he was the perfect fit for Manchester United. There were examples of this, giving debuts to the likes of Marcus Rashford and Timothy Fosu-Mensah which was heartening to see. However, it was Van Gaal’s hit and miss football that was often criticised for being boring with slow sideways passing. If the goal posts were on either end of the touchline, we’d have retained the premier league title. On the contrary, when Van Gaal’s style of play clicked, we went on a good run beating City, Arsenal, Tottenham and arguably one of the greatest ever United victories against Liverpool at Anfield with Juan Mata grabbing a brace. Anthony Martial too flourished under the big Dutchman. However, consistency was a big issue and very rarely was I on the edge of my seat during matches. My excitement regarding the signing of probably the best left winger in Europe at the time in Angel Di Maria was short lived. My hopes of another wing wizard capable of lighting up the theatre of dreams and continue our culture of fast attacking mastery on the sides of the pitch were dashed.

So onto the present. Out-and-out wingers in the modern game have become a dying breed with their role no longer being appreciated as it used to be. It’s a crying shame that Manchester United have ditched this idea too. In my opinion a winger is the most exciting role on a football pitch. Witnessing players such as Ryan Giggs and Cristiano Ronaldo destroy teams with their blistering pace, technicality, ability, agility and quality crosses kept me on the edge of my Old Trafford seat. I know players like these are rare but with good scouting, I’m sure there is a gem out there made for United.

The chances of United reverting back to traditional wingers seem pretty slim as we all know Jose Mourinho prefers a more pragmatic approach by stifling the opposition and exerting power and strength. I must say that I’m not against this type of football. If it equates to success, then bring it on. Appointing Jose Mourinho a serial winner was a positive move by the board at the time as he was and probably still is the best candidate (together with Zinedine Zidane) for the job. It was always going to be a case of buying into Jose Mourinho’s values and not the other way around. Jose does things his way and does not budge for anybody. Yes Jose comes with his own personality and some self-sabotaging traits in my opinion, but that’s a topic for discussion on another day.

Over the past eighteen months many United supporters across the land have expressed their displeasure at the style of football Jose Mourinho has deployed. I have always backed the manager and still do. However, I would like to see Jose enable his players to express themselves, take more risks and swarm the opposition penalty area. They say that the best form of defence is attack. Well Brazil have five world cups and Real Madrid thirteen European cups. That says it all. Sir Alex Ferguson used to say that with the defenders we have, we will always score goals at the other end. Whilst I accept Jose’s unique characteristics and methodology it would be encouraging if he could ‘let the horses run freely’ more frequently.

During Jose's time in Spain, Real Madrid banged in over a hundred goals a season. I know Cristiano had some say in that but it shows that Jose does have alternative types of artillery if needed. There were glimpses of it last season too where United galloped forward during the first ten matches. The second half comeback against City away showed the world what the red devil on our jersey was all about. Imposing ourselves on our City rivals with attacking intentions had an adverse effect on them as they went down to Liverpool in their next match. If only we approached the home fixture with more attacking prowess, we’d have been a lot closer to City without a doubt.

I can’t help but feel envious of City who have notched up three premier league titles in six years and with Pep Guardiola at the helm, there is promise for more good times ahead (says me shaking my head side to side). But we have the best man in the business in Jose Mourinho when it comes to overcoming adversity.

Even though I believe we can win the title with Jose, I still feel that we are an exceptional winger away from being a formidable force again. Marcus Rashford is a quality young footballer whose preferred role is through the middle. He is capable of beating a man with pace as opposed to the tricks and body sways of a more cultured winger. Anthony Martial is more adept at beating players with skill and speed from the sides of the pitch but needs to make the game appear less difficult and become much more of a consistent outlet.

I wonder how last season would have panned out if our pursuit of Ivan Perisic from Inter Milan had been successful. Would it hurt if Jose was to combine our powerful style of play with some expansive, fast flowing, virtuoso type football?

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