Man United need more out of wide players as Juan Mata moves infield
When Louis van Gaal dumped Manchester United's familiar 4-4-2 line-up during the preseason tour after taking charge of the club, supporters were impressed. The 3-5-2 formation, which saw Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia play as wing-backs, allowed United to have width, dominate possession and create plenty of chances.
That summer they beat Real Madrid, Inter Milan, Liverpool and Roma, playing fantastic football, and the supporters couldn't wait for the season to start. They probably would have settled for anything after a season of David Moyes, but to watch a total transformation in the style and confidence of the team was incredible. Even Young looked good!
Yet the 3-5-2 was ditched a few months later, with United picking up some awful results at the start of the season. After reverting to more familiar formations, the width of the team never recovered. Juan Mata, an incredibly gifted footballer, has been used out on the right for most of the season. For all his strengths, from his excellent first touch to his eye for a brilliant ball forward, speed is not one of them.
Playing him wide and allowing him to cut in on his left foot had some benefits, but none that outweighed playing him in his proper position, centrally behind the striker. It also came with plenty of drawbacks -- United struggled to counter when Mata was one of the players left racing with an opposition full-back for the ball. It may come as some surprise to learn that the Spaniard has covered more ground than any of his teammates this season, showing there's certainly no lack of effort on his part, but he has been used so ineffectively.
United's performances in their last three games have been significantly better than over any period during the season so far, coinciding with Van Gaal's decision to move Mata to the middle and allow players with pace to flank him. With Mata playing clever balls to the players ahead of him, the wide forwards have been able to create a speedier attack.
Jesse Lingard has replaced him on the right with some success as he looks to try and hold on to his starting place in the team. It's funny to think that this time last year, he had just agreed to join Derby County on loan, struggling to even get on to the fringe of United's squad.
"I want to play for Manchester United," he said after the move was confirmed. "That is my main aim and by coming on loan to Derby, I have a great chance to continue to develop and help them achieve their dream of getting back to the Premier League and hopefully that will help me achieve mine as well."
A year later, Lingard bagged the assist for Daley Blind's goal against Derby in the FA Cup that put United 2-1 ahead. Days later, Lingard gave United a 1-0 lead at home against Stoke before scoring his team's only goal in a draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. All in all, not too bad for a week's work from United's academy graduate.
On the opposite wing, Anthony Martial terrifies opposing defenders every time he gets on the ball and runs at them. He is utterly fearless when attacking, charging straight into the box, and loves to cut inside for a shot. Fans have been calling for the Frenchman to replace Wayne Rooney up top so that one of the club's few potentially world-class players can see more of the ball. There's also the notion he's wasted out wide, and this is probably true, but now that Rooney has started scoring again, Martial's pace on the wing is a real asset.
However, the moment either Martial or Lingard have a bad game, United look in trouble. Both are inexperienced and nowhere near the finished article. More worrying is that the players competing for their place aren't any more reliable. Adnan Januzaj has just returned from a failed loan move at Borussia Dortmund, while Memphis Depay only shows flashes of what he's capable of. The Dutchman is far more prone to slackness, like his misplaced pass and failure to track back at Stamford Bridge, than he is of making a real positive difference on a result.
Andreas Pereira is another option and one the fans are eager to see more of but again, he comes with no guarantees. He's featured in less than 10 games in all competitions, so to offer him a place in the team is still a gamble.
After seeing the team play exciting football again though over recent weeks, it's a concern to see the flimsy foundation on which it's been built. United have bags of potential in the players they have available to them in the wide positions but if United are to scrape into the top four, they're going to need their flair players, the ones with speed and creative ability, to step up to the plate and keep the free-flowing, exciting football in Van Gaal's plans.
If they fail, the manager may feel forced to revert to the more guarded, possession-obsessed style of play that no fans want to see. The supporters want to see risks taken and to be entertained. It's up to the wide players to fulfil this craving.
Scott is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow him on Twitter: @R_o_M.