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Manchester United’s right-wing conundrum

During Manchester United’s pre-season tour of 2016-17, Jose Mourinho publically and repeatedly bemoaned Manchester United’s failure to land the last of his four summer targets. Mourinho believed his attack was uneven. His board disagreed and Mourinho entered the 2017-18 season with no natural right-sided midfielder. Ivan Perisic, Mourinho’s final target that summer remained with his club, Inter Milan. Mourinho could only look on as Perisic scored 11 goals and racked up nine assists in all competitions, more than any United midfielder.

It was an issue that caused little problems for United early in the season as they breezed past West Ham United and Swansea City in their opening fixtures, plundering four goals in both. Further impressive 4-0 victories came in the next few weeks over Everton and Crystal Palace. However, these performances masked the deficiencies in United’s attack.

United soon struggled to keep up with Premier League pacesetters, Manchester City who had an embarrassment of riches going forward and were equally destructive on both flanks and through the centre.

For a team who previously boasted such potency on the right side of midfield with the likes of Andrei Kanchelskis, David Beckham, and Cristiano Ronaldo, setting up home there, it was clear this was a large hole in United’s squad.

Mourinho attempted to resolve the problem in the January transfer window when United signed Arsenal superstar forward, Alexis Sanchez. Signed due to his adaptability and ability to play anywhere across the attack, the hope was that the Chilean could fill the right-wing position ably.

However, despite Sanchez starting his United career in that position, he was so effective there that a couple of games later, he was shunted to the left; a position that already had three players vying for one spot. All the Sanchez signing ended up achieving was pushing Anthony Martial, the man Sanchez displaced in the team, closer to the Old Trafford exit door.

Of Mourinho’s current forwards, the right-footed midfielders, Alexis Sanchez, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard all perform substantially better on the left. Ironically, the only left-sided attacking midfielder in the squad, Juan Mata is the favoured option on the right side of the attack. However, the issue with Mata in a wing position is his severe lack of pace which means the player behind him, usually Valencia has additional work to do to cover if Mata loses the ball. Considering Valencia will turn 33 years old before the 2018-19 season gets underway, that additional workload will likely neuter his effectiveness.

Mourinho’s pre-season interviews have a worryingly Antonio Conte of last season feel. Conte alienated his employers with his outspoken criticism of the club’s transfer policy. He was unemployed 12 months later despite two trophies in two years during his Chelsea tenure. It is never a good sign when the manager is so clearly at odds with his employers.

Unsurprisingly, Mourinho once again has been linked with a host of right-sided midfield options; most notably last season’s target, Perisic, this time coming off an impressive World Cup with finalists, Croatia, which has seen his price dramatically increase, no doubt further irking Mourinho. Perisic’s Croatia team-mate Ante Rebic appears to a much more easily attainable target, given he has outgrown current club, Eintracht Frankfurt, but the transfer whispers regarding this potential move have gone extremely cold, suggesting that interest in him is no more than that.

The pursuit for long-time Woodward target, Bale is fruitless and a waste of time. If Bale truly wanted to leave Madrid, he would have engineered it by now, just like team-mate, Ronaldo did.

Mourinho’s most concrete interest appears to be in Willian. However, with a new manager at the helm at Chelsea and reports suggesting the Brazilian loves life in London, this deal appears a distant dream as well.

The counter-argument to the lack of recruitment is why can’t Mourinho coach one of Martial, Lingard or Sanchez to adapt to the right side? It is a fair argument, considering United’s board will recall how Sir Alex Ferguson did exactly this with Beckham, whose preferred role was in the centre and in converting Paul Scholes from attacker to midfielder and Ryan Giggs from winger to central midfielder. All of those men were special players no doubt, but Ferguson coached them sufficiently, to be effective for the good of the team, which meant he seldom had to spend in the transfer market.

Mourinho’s downbeat assessment that he would like two players but will likely only get one suggests that the answer to his right-wing issue won’t come from the transfer market.

Mourinho, therefore, may have to take a leaf out of Ferguson’s playbook and work with what he has already got to resolve the right-wing conundrum. United’s 2018-19 success and possibly his own future will rely on that.

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