With crippled wings
September 16, 2010 § 3 Comments
Life can be unaccountably and randomly cruel. A foot comes down at a slightly odd angle, catches the turf after a nothing challenge, and suddenly bones are broken, ligaments are torn, and a career is on the line. Now that we know that Antonio Valencia’s operation has been successful, all we can do is wait, hope, maybe pray if you’re that way inclined, and let time get on with what I would imagine will be, for Valencia, the longest few months of his life.
While nobody seems to be sure when he’ll return, or whether he’ll be the same player if/when he does, it’s safe to say that United will miss him. Last season, across all competitions, he contributed 7 goals and 11 assists; a pretty useful return for a first season, particularly given the boots he was being asked to fill. Indeed, arguably more impressive was the speed with which he established himself in the first team, starting 29 league games and appearing in all European games bar one.
And all of a sudden, he’s out for the season. With hindsight, of course, it’s easy to think that the Bebe money might have been better invested in match-ready cover for the flanks, but no matter now. The final upshot is that United’s options on the wings are (at least until January): Park Ji-sung, Ryan Giggs, and Nani. (In my ever-humblest, it would be optimistic in the extreme to think that either Bebe or Obertan are in a position to contribute much beyond cameo or impact appearances, except maybe in the cups.)
What does seem likely is that Nani will be installed as first-choice on the right. In the view of many it’s his best position; certainly, the right flank provides him with the natural angle to bend crosses between goalkeeper and defence, as he recently did devastatingly against Everton. There were encouraging signs throughout last season that Nani was ready to establish himself as a first-team regular, and United will need him to do so.
The other side is more interesting. For the Premier League, assuming Ferguson persists with the fluid 4-4-2 he seems to prefer for most domestic fixtures, we can expect either Park or Giggs to assume the position on the left flank. In contrast to Nani, however, their natural instinct will be to tuck in slightly, at once bolstering the midfield and giving Evra space to charge into. Which he does like to do, bless him.
In Europe, however, and in the bigger league and cup games, I have a suspicion that Valencia’s absence, coupled with Berbatov’s good form, will see Wayne Rooney return to his station on the left. Now, the most obvious consequence of this will be to send the sports desks of the red tops into hysterical conniptions, as though Rooney was being asked to trudge down the line with his spirit in manacles, swinging cross after futile cross into the empty penalty area that’s his by right.
But I suspect that the opportunity to move Rooney back to the position from which he helped United reach two European Cup (okay, Champions League) finals will prove appealing. I think an instructive parallel can be drawn with Nicolas Anelka, who nominally starts to the right of a front three at Chelsea but tends to actually play as a second forward with a high degree of freedom. All the freedom of being a roaming forward, none of the pressure of being the nominated goalscorer. Also, it allows United to start their three best attacking players – Rooney, Berbatov, and Nani – but retain the flexibility to flood the midfield, if required. So, in the spirit of complete and total speculation, something like this …
Obviously, this relies on Berbatov maintaining his newfound (and slightly surprising) efficacy in the lone-striker role. And nobody else getting injured. And me correctly predicting a Ferguson selection decision, which is probably the least likely. But I think that, while it may seem counter-intuitive to move last season’s top scorer away from goal, the absence of Valencia means that United need to consider a fundamental restructuring.
Alternatively, in the interests of high-class unpredictable lunatic entertainment, one Da Silva brother on each wing? Go on, Fergie. It’d be brilliant.
GET WELL SOON, TONIO.