The tactical importance of fullbacks to Manchester United this season

Antonio Valencia

Referring to Manchester United’s attacking talents this season as ‘reputable’ would be a massive understatement. It seems United finally has the firepower needed to seriously compete at the highest level. Anthony Martial, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan headline United’s options moving forward, without mentioning Paul Pogba in the centre of midfield. However, of all these midfielders, it is worth noting that the player who poses the widest attacking threat is Pogba, who is, as aforementioned, a central midfielder.

Every prolific attacking unit has a potent wide threat or crossing threat. Real Madrid’s Champions League-winning side of 2014 had Angel di Maria cutting out wide with ridiculous movement that proved to be the x-factor in the final match before his move to United ended up disastrously. Leicester City’s unlikely title win was largely dependent on Marc Albrighton providing an attacking spark from wide areas. Arguably most notably, though, Barcelona’s treble side of 2015 had Jordi Alba and Dani Alves providing the wide threat for Lionel Messi, Neymar, and Luis Suarez as Barcelona historically fired their way to the Champions League.

As good as they are, Ibrahimovic, Mkhitaryan, and Martial aren’t Messi, Neymar and Suarez. However, for United’s attack to be successful, Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia will have to be like Jordi Alba and Dani Alves. Attacking with ruthlessness and directness, Shaw and Valencia already look like the potent attacking threats needed to spark United throughout the season. Valencia’s willingness to take on a man with absolutely searing pace reminds United fans of the days when he was a potent winger, and Shaw seems to be able to match it on the left. Both have already created a goal for United this season, indirectly.

United fans have already seen Ibrahimovic dropping deep into attacking midfield areas, and with Pogba bombing into the final third, Rooney may be dropping even deeper to cover for the Frenchman. What United fans haven’t yet noticed is a certain Martial’s diagonal runs in between the right-fullback and the right centre-back to take up number nine positions. This way, United has both an aerial threat and a running threat to the centre-backs while being able to accommodate Rooney on the pitch. This is where Shaw’s attacking importance comes in.

Shaw’s job will be to bomb to the byline and cross for the likes of Pogba, Rooney, Ibrahimovic and Martial, which will create chaos in the box. The sight of Ibrahimovic and Martial in the box with Rooney and Pogba making last-minute runs is designed to cause pandemonium to opposition defences. This is where Mkhitaryan’s likely role comes into play.

Martial’s cutting runs from the left will occupy the right fullback, while Ibrahimovic, Rooney, and Pogba will occupy the centre-backs and one midfielder. That leaves the left-back. By cutting in, Mkhitaryan will force the remaining defenders to either follow Mkhitaryan or give one of the best-attacking midfielders license to roam. Assuming the fullback follows Mkhitaryan inside, the wingers will be forced back. Mkhitaryan will then have six options- Pogba and Rooney running beyond, Martial cutting in centrally, Ibrahimovic for a direct finish, and then two wide threats, Shaw, and Valencia, who will benefit from the space created. The only problem presented is when the opposition wins the ball.

This is when Shaw and Valencia need to use their pace to run back with the wingers, who will be pinned back to accommodate defensive setups. Tracking back, Shaw and Valencia have already shown that they are among the fastest footballers in the Premier League, and this will prove vital. Tracking back, their one-on-one duties will be important in preventing the opposition from breaching United’s defence, or at least allowing everyone else to track back at their slightly slower pace (barring Pogba and Martial, of course). Their defensive roles, then, are simple- don’t play anyone onside, work on winning the ball back, and fulfill the traditional defensive roles of the fullback.

To conclude, fullbacks can play important roles in tactical systems even if the football side is not managed by Pep Guardiola, and Shaw and Valencia’s successes will be of the utmost importance to United. This explanation also answers the questions around why Mourinho may not fancy the likes of Matteo Darmian, as he searches for fullbacks who can cross a ball, or why Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, for example, could be a lethal fullback in this system.

For tactical reference, it is very easy to compare United’s fullbacks to Barcelona’s, albeit with far greater crossing duties and, in the long-term, better defending to compensate for slightly worse attacking and ball retention. Nevertheless, though, there are three points to consider in the discussion. Firstly, who in United’s current squad can provide the depth for these players? Secondly, how can United change the system for matches in which the fullbacks need more defensive responsibilities? Finally, and most importantly, is this finally “the season of Luke Shaw” and the revival of Antonio Valencia?

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