Down The Wings

Manchester United Fan Blog

Manchester United’s attacking options: Who stays and who goes?

(Photo by Giuseppe Cottini/Getty Images)

After 16 days out of action, Manchester United thoroughly disappointed fans with an incredibly underwhelming performance away at Newcastle on Monday night. Whilst many expected to see a fresh, energetic and rejuvenated side following more than a couple of weeks away from the pitch, the reality was far from that; with chance creation minimal, the Reds lost possession 167 times across the course of the game, their highest total of the season. Although the ball progression was typically slow from the defenders and midfielders, United’s attack were woeful in possession, which prompts an interesting debate as to which attackers need to be dropped, who needs to stay in the side, and who needs to go completely. 

When Ralf Rangnick was announced as interim manager, fans and pundits alike were intrigued to see how certain players would adapt to his infamous 4-2-2-2 formation. In a formation that doesn’t particularly accommodate out-and-out wingers, it was always going to be interesting to see where Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood- two players who operated mostly off the flanks under the previous manager- would fit in the German manager’s side. 

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In the instance of Rashford, following a couple of bleak showings up-front in Rangnick’s opening Premier League games, the manager was probably right to switch things up against Newcastle by bringing him deeper as part of the pair behind the strikers in the 4-2-2-2 system. In turn, this allowed Greenwood a chance to play alongside Ronaldo as a striker. Greenwood had previously come off the bench as a deeper forward against Crystal Palace and Norwich, so it could be said that Rangnick literally swapped both Rashford and Greenwood in the last game.

Despite the logic behind it, with many fans convinced Greenwood’s future lies as a striker, the experiment didn’t work, as suggested by the mere 4 shots on target that United mustered up. Greenwood seemed isolated in the final third, not helped by the lack of quality passing and slow ball progression, and Rashford just seemed lost entirely, having spent the majority of the game running into blind alleyways and making stray passes. 

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Greenwood was a victim of the half-time substitutions, yet he probably has a lot more credit in the bank than Rashford at the moment, who simply can’t seem to pass a ball in a straight line. Greenwood, on the one hand, has come off the bench in both of the league games before Newcastle and has brought energy and sharpness when doing so, not to mention his acrobatic strike against Young Boys. Rashford, on the other hand, looks a shadow of his best self and surely cannot start the game against Burnley on Thursday night. 

With that being said, many fans would likely agree that Rashford should be dropped in the next game, whilst Greenwood probably edges his way into the starting side. By no means is this a way of showering praise on Greenwood- he just hasn’t been as poor as his fellow Englishman.

It seems worthless even entertaining the thought of either of the forwards leaving United any time soon. Both products of the academy, they aren’t players who the hierarchy would be looking to let go of, not to mention their social media value to a club that prioritise Instagram likes over silverware. Also, Marcus Rashford MBE’s impressive work off the pitch does no harm to United in regard to publicity.

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The Greenwood-Rashford discussion weighs in nicely when considering the value of Edison Cavani to this United side. Cavani, now 34, has been linked with a move away from the club in the upcoming January transfer window, which isn’t the first time he has been rumored to be unsettled since his arrival in the Summer of 2020. In spite of this, the Uruguayan forward continues to fight tooth and nail for the shirt, as seen with his relentless work ethic and pressing, despite being in the latter stages of his career. 

Cavani came on at half-time to replace Greenwood and did what he does best; the veteran made life hard for the Newcastle defenders and, despite feeding off scraps, he managed to score a fortunate equaliser with his clever movement in the box.

Cavani, the model professional he is, looked a breath of fresh air since returning from injury and it would be baffling if he wasn’t rewarded with a start under the lights in midweek. Although transfer stories and injury woes may weigh him down, he seems like a hugely important figure to United’s chances and seems like a man worth keeping hold until the end of the season, when he will likely return to South America.

With all the talk about the forwards currently in and amongst the side, it is easy to forget Anthony Martial. A small minority of supporters would tell you that Martial, now 26 years of age, could be of real value to the club in these times of struggle. The majority, however, will tell you that the Frenchman has had his day at the club; following both emphatic moments and moments of frustration, he needs to remove himself from Old Trafford before things become sour. 

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Rangnick recently confirmed the desire to leave from the former Monaco man, yet United have even more recently rejected a loan offer from Sevilla. Sources close to the club have it on good authority that the people upstairs want his full salary to be paid by the club he departs to, as well as a loan fee. Rangnick further said that if there are no suitors, then the club are happy to keep Martial, and that will likely be the case, with Martial’s high wages a stumbling block for most European sides. With all this said, whether he ends up going or not, Martial’s future is probably best played out away from Manchester.

Before looking at those behind the strikers, it is only fair to mention Ronaldo. The Portuguese superstar had a bad day yesterday, with the Geordie crowd jeering his every move, yet his importance to United’s chances this season should never be in doubt. 

Arguably the greatest to ever do it, Ronaldo needs no justification in regard to his selection between now and the end of the season, and Rangnick will be working had to try and maximise the output of his star man. United will never want to be rid of Ronaldo, but if the team doesn’t start showing ambition, Ronaldo may want rid of United. The highest Champions League scorer of all time won’t be sticking around to play in the Europa League.

In the slots behind the strikers, it is worth looking at Bruno Fernandes, Jadon Sancho, Donny van de Beek, Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata. 

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Fernandes has had an odd season in the sense that, despite not being at his very best, he has still come up with good numbers. For example, he has 6 assists in 5 games in this current European campaign, averaging 1.2 assists per 90, but his overall game has dropped off a cliff in recent weeks. Like the rest of the forwards, Bruno suffers from not getting the ball quickly and efficiently from the midfield, but even when he has had possession, United’s Portuguese Magnifico has made more stray passes than ever before.

There are clear foreign agendas in the mainstream media at the best times, and people are very quick to forget that the 27-year-old came into a side that had Andreas Pereira pulling the strings; he brought United from a crisis in January 2020 to a third-place finish and a Europa League final in that campaign, not to mention his staggering contribution in 2020/21, where United reached another European final and finished second in the league. 

As we approach his two-year anniversary at the club, it is vital to remember the contribution that Fernandes has made to this United side and where it might be had it not been for his influence. He is suspended for the match against Burnley due to an accumulation of cards, yet you would expect that in the long-term, Bruno will gradually find his best form once more.

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Sancho came on against Newcastle for Fred, yet his influence was far more sub-par than it was super-sub. The former Dortmund man gave the ball away a staggering amount of times, often leaving Ronaldo frustrated, which was a surprise considering he seemed to be finding his feet in recent weeks. Goals against Villarreal and Chelsea were encouraging, yet they seem a distant memory after United’s draw on Tyneside.

It could be argued that Sancho simply had a bad day against Newcastle, and the £72m man will have a chance to rectify his poor performance against Burnley in midweek, where you would think he will start in place of the suspended Fernandes. However, this is far from nailed on, with the manager perhaps feeling like he ought to make a statement after his dismal showing from the bench.

With a plethora of underwhelming performances in mind, Rangnick will surely start Dutch midfielder, Donny van de Beek, against Sean Dyche’s Clarets. A product of the infamous Ajax system, where players are adapted to be versatile in a whole host of positions, van de Beek is good enough to operate as either part of the pair in front of the defenders (where Fred and McTominay typically feature), or as part of the pair behind the strikers (where Fernandes and Sancho typically feature). 

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With a lack of first-team minutes since Rangnick arrived, also considering Fernandes’ suspension and other players’ bad form, the 24-year-old has to come into the side on Thursday. 

One criticism that van de Beek has thrown at him by some fans is that, when he does play, he never seems to ‘shine’, so to speak. Although, would it not be right to say that when Donny has featured, he has played alongside players who are either transfer listed, too old, or simply not good enough? 

Without naming names, van de Beek is often surrounded by poor quality, and would undoubtedly benefit from a run in the first team with better players. Not many players in world football can come into a team and run the game having had weeks on end out the side. Being rusty is a huge factor.

He is everything that Fred and McTominay aren’t in regard to midfield qualities, and could easily slot in to replace those players. In saying that though, he will likely feature as one of the forward players against Burnley in the absence of Fernandes.

Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata are two players who many fans believe should be on their way. Lingard, now 29-years-old, has been linked with a move away from the club for a long time now, and his dismal showing against Young Boys suggested that his head was probably focused on not getting injured ahead of the transfer window.

The academy product offers a lot of energy, but little creativity, which isn’t really what the side need at this moment in time. Lingard will have his sights on a place at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, and the chances of him being there will probably be enhanced if he was to move to a lower Premier League club, such as an Everton or a Leicester where he would be a star player getting regular Premier League football.

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Juan Mata, despite being a tidy passer of the ball, is another who should be on his way. The 33-year-old Spaniard has looked way off the pace for a while now in regard to the demanding, physical nature of the Premier League, meaning his chances in the first team are few and far between.

Mata looked out of his depth at times in the Young Boys game in a deeper role, and probably ought to make the step abroad in January, where he will play regular first-team football in a league that demands less of an ageing body.

Anthony Elanga, Amad Diallo and Hannibal Mejbri are a few of a range of youth players who could be in the thoughts of the manager as 2022 approaches. Elanga was on the bench against Newcastle ahead of Martial, Mata and Lingard, indicative that he has a part to play as United look to find some form. 

Diallo and Mejbri, Ivorian and Moroccan respectively, will soon be off to play at the African Cup of Nations, so will not have a part to play in the next games. However, both these youngsters are immense talents, and will surely be part of United’s future as you look long-term.

Thursday night sees United play Burnley at the Theatre of Dreams, where Ralf Rangnick will surely make some changes to a poor, underperforming side. Whether that pays off remains to be seen.

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