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Manchester United’s attack sputtering due to lack of balance

With 67 goals through 36 matches this campaign, Manchester United have improved their goalscoring record from the paltry 54 times they found the back of the net last season. It is also their highest tally since Sir Alex Ferguson’s final season in charge when United were rampant and scored 86 goals to lead the league.

This current iteration under Jose Mourinho has not been nearly as prolific. Despite standing 2nd in the table, United rank a mere fifth in goals scored in the league behind Tottenham Hotspur.

The underlying metrics further paint the picture of a team struggling to carve out opportunities. United have only made 285 key passes, ranking seventh behind an incredibly profligate Southampton side. Furthermore, Mourinho’s men have created a total of just 336 chances all season, ranking 6th behind Arsenal who have created 408.

The club whom they hope to catch up to next season, Manchester City, have created 449 chances so far this year. Bitter rivals Liverpool have created 445 and even a lackluster Chelsea side have created 440 in this campaign.

So what’s holding back United from developing into more potent force in their own right? Why, despite the vast fortunes spent, are they still unable to consistently break down the opposition and impose their will on matches?

A lack of balance is the predominant issue which has largely been marked by the redundancy of the attacking talent at their disposal, particularly in wide areas. Alexis Sanchez, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford on the left and Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata on the right all prefer to come inside rather than maintaining width.

As a result, United’s attack often nullifies itself. Players end up virtually on top of each other in central areas. The lack of variety in their attacking play as often they fail to both create gaps by stretching defenses wide or threaten opposition defenses by making runs in behind.

Having wingers who like to come inside isn’t an issue unique to United though. What is unique, among the top sides in the league, are the deficient quality of United’s fullbacks who provide little relief to alleviate the problem.

The club’s two natural fullbacks, Matteo Darmian and Luke Shaw, have struggled to establish themselves when given the opportunity over former wingers-cum-fullbacks, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young. The transition from wide attackers to fullback has given Valencia and Young a new lease on life, but Father Time is undefeated.

At 32 years old both should be appreciated for their willingness to play deeper and provide relief for the club in positions unnatural to them. But the reality is they’re simply not good enough to be the first choice in those positions for a club with United’s ambition.

Young, playing as a right-footed left back, is more comfortable cutting in rather than providing width on the overlap. Valencia, an indefatigable individual whose physical prowess has defined him, seems to have lost that yard of pace and bit of acceleration which made him a consistent release and threat on United’s right flank. Both seem reluctant at times to get forward, lest they get exposed on the counter.

Then there are also legitimate concerns over the lack of cohesiveness in the team’s attacking moves. At times the performances haven’t just been marked by a lack of energy and desire, though that has certainly been an issue at times too, but also the failure of players to operate on the same wavelength and develop an innate understanding with one another required to break down stubborn opposition.

The manager must also share some blame on that matter. Constant rotation in wide areas, as well as midfield, has made it difficult for players to develop the necessary chemistry to thrive. Of course, injuries have had an impact, but chopping and changing after seemingly every match has seemed impatient at best and reactionary at worst.

Too often this season the team has been reliant on individual flashes of brilliance to make the difference despite a stark advantage in overall quality. At times United have struggled to find any cutting edge to their play. One goal in three away matches against Brighton and Hove Albion, Newcastle United and Huddersfield Town, this season’s promoted clubs, is not good enough for a team desperate to regain its place atop the Premier League.

There have been stretches where things seem to be clicking, but these are all too often brief visions of what could be rather than the unfolding of a new reality. Whatever the case, although the team has improved its attacking prowess in comparison to previous seasons, there is still much work to be done to turn Manchester United into an attacking force capable of challenging on all fronts.

 Written by Ashwin Ramnath

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