By Ryan Baldi, Football Whispers
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho couldn’t have wished for a better start to the 2017/18 Premier League season. His side have bounced back from their UEFA Super Cup defeat to Real Madrid by claiming six points from six in England’s top flight, with eight goals scored and none conceded.
West Ham United and Swansea City haven’t provided a great deal of resistance to the Red Devils in the first two fixtures of the campaign, but United deserve credit for dispatching their opponents so emphatically, winning both games 4-0.
This recent form has reaffirmed the Old Trafford club’s status as genuine title contenders this season, with their squad as strong as ever thanks to £150million spent in the transfer market to sign Victor Lindelof, Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic.
But United are not without issues. One position in particular will be of concern to Mourinho. Our friends at Football Whispers have taken a look at why the Red Devils’ lack of an established, top-class left-back could cost them dearly in the title race this season.
Mourinho’s men may have come away from the Liberty Stadium with a resounding, four-goal victory, but the scoreline didn’t tell the whole story.
For long periods, Swansea were able to frustrate their visitors, limiting them to half-chances and conjesting the central zone to block their free-flowing attacking play.
Even at 1-0, after Eric Bailly put United ahead with his first goal for the club, the away side still weren’t quite clicking, with their play too pedestrian, predictable and easily defended.
Only when Swans boss Paul Clement, in an effort to push for an equaliser, switched from a 3-5-2 formation to 4-4-2, did United enjoy more freedom in the middle of the park. And Anthony Martial’s late introduction inspired the Red Devils to find their scoring touch.
One of the most obvious deficiencies in United’s attacking play for large portions of the match was their lack of width. Marcus Rashford, a natural striker, and Juan Mata, who is more comfortable centrally, lined up on the flanks. Neither are the kind of touchline-hugging winger who stretches the field wide, opening up space inside.
Using inverted wingers like this is by no means a bad idea in itself, and it is something Mourinho has done consistently throughout his career. But such a method required the full-backs to then push up and support the attack, something Antonio Valencia on the right and Daley Blind on the left seemed reluctant to do.
Mourinho spoke recently of his desire to add the kind of wide player who will enable him to play with a back three, suggesting that he would like to sign a versatile option who can operate at wing-back as well as in a more conventional wide attacking role.
With that in mind, rumours of United’s summer-long pursuit of Inter Milan‘s Ivan Perisic make perfect sense: the Croatian is hard-working without the ball and effective with it. But it now seems highly likely that the 28-year-old will be staying at the San Siro.
Tottenham Hotspur‘s Danny Rose is said to be a United and Chelsea transfer target, but prising the England man away from North London at this late stage of the transfer window will be very difficult indeed.
That leaves Mourinho with Blind, Matteo Darmian and Luke Shaw as his options for the left-back position, all of whom have question marks over their suitability.
Blind is versatile and a solid back-up option, but his lack of pace makes him far from ideal when expected to get up and down the pitch for 90 minutes to support the attack.
Darmian, a natural right-back, appears to be Mourinho’s go-to option when a specific opponent presents a need for additional defensive solidity. The Italian is a fine one-on-one defender with refined positioning, but he offers close to nothing in attack when breaking forward on his weaker side.
Shaw is far and away United’s best option at left-back: fast dynamic and inventive in attack and competent defensively. But, judging by Mourinho’s use of the 22-year-old last season and less than encouraging public comments, the former Chelsea and Real Madrid manager remains unconvinced by Shaw’s aptitude for top-level competition.
However, there are some indications that Shaw has been working hard over the summer and has begun to demonstrate a more mature, professional attitude in and around the club.
There is no doubt that the former Southampton man has world-class potential, and it would be a tragedy if United were to never see a return on their £28million investment in him.
Shaw came through an under-23 match this week as he works his way back to fitness from an injury sustained late last season. How he bounces back from a disappointing 2016/17 will set the tone for his future hopes at Old Trafford.
Mourinho and United will be hopeful that Shaw is able to return and develop into the player he showed signs of becoming before his unfortunate leg break in 2015.
If Shaw doesn’t step up to the plate and Mourinho is unable to add reinforcements before deadline day, United’s title aspirations will be weakened by their narrow left side.