Manchester United must look to the left to solve a key problem
It is unnecessarily negative, in the eyes of many, to criticise Manchester United's transfer activity this summer with a month still left in the window. And yet, and yet... There has been a great deal of concern about the squad's alarming lack of depth in defensive midfield, to the extent that it has maybe obscured discussion of one key area.
A major problem for United, as Beyonce sang in "Irreplaceable", is to be found "to the left, to the left." Their left flank has been a problem for years. For reasons of form, injury, a lack of pace or all three, none of the full-backs they have played there have truly convinced. Let us consider the options:
- Ashley Young has been sometimes been useful as a makeshift solution, but he would probably be among the first to accept that he is merely filling in where others cannot.
- Luke Shaw has struggled with fitness, with confidence -- something for which his last two managers, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho, have perhaps been partly responsible -- and with his recovery from his horrific leg-break against PSV Eindhoven in the UEFA Champions League.
- Marcos Rojo is left-footed, but there his suitability for this position largely ends -- he does not relish life near the touchline, and is best on the left side of a back three or a central defensive partnership.
- Daley Blind lacks the acceleration that allows him to overlap on the break, and though he is a fine playmaker when he remains in a deeper role he can find himself exposed against a truly elite winger.
- Matteo Darmian is, alongside Young, the most defensively disciplined of this group, but is the least capable of offering an attacking outlet, and rarely seems comfortable when venturing beyond the halfway line -- but that does not particularly matter, since Mourinho rarely uses him there.
In summary, United have not really had a convincing candidate to fill the left-back role since the departure of Patrice Evra, who left for Juventus at the invitation of David Moyes.
Shaw's brilliance is not in doubt, but the question marks over his future have nothing at all to do with his talent. He may well have conquered most of his mental challenges, but physical fragility may still do for him.
The knock-on effects of United's left-back problem have been considerable. They have greatly contributed to the isolation of the team's wide players. Much has been said of how ineffective Marcus Rashford has looked when played on the left -- but far less has been said of how much easier it is to subdue Rashford's approaching threat when you know he's the only danger you'll face on that flank.
Similarly, it was thrilling, but also poignant, to see Anthony Martial's brilliant assist against Real Madrid for Jesse Lingard's goal in the recent friendly. Martial started that sensational dribble from the touchline, which is about 10 yards further from goal than he needs to start in order to become truly prolific. He is far better as an inside-left than as a winger, which is the slot to which he has been so often consigned. And Memphis Depay had many problems of his own making, but he was not helped by starting in such a wide position, with so many defensive duties.
Mourinho's pursuit of Internazionale's Ivan Perisic, a hard-working winger, therefore makes a great deal of sense. Yet this acquisition, of itself, would not address the issue entirely. United need another attacking left-back in the mould of Shaw. A strong candidate would be Alex Sandro of Juventus -- who, of course has also attracted the interest of Chelsea.
But perhaps Mourinho's approach can be seen another way -- that he genuinely has faith in Shaw as the long-term solution in this area, and is more than ready to allow the England defender to play his way back to full form and fitness. In the meantime, he is apparently willing to accept a slower start to the season than he would have liked, with Shaw likely to return in early autumn.
In any event, it is a slightly risky path to take, given that United's rivals have almost all strengthened their squads in this area -- highlighting just how important it is to have full-backs who can press forward with intent.
If Mourinho is indeed showing faith in Shaw, then that is commendable -- at the same time, it puts considerable pressure on the player for it to be rewarded. Much of United's season depends upon getting this gamble right.
Musa Okwonga is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow on Twitter: @Okwonga.