Watching Manchester United’s full-backs cut inside and fail to beat the first man for the umpteenth time, I can’t help but ask myself: how can we expect to challenge for the big titles with two players in such a key position both in the twilight of their careers. Not only that, but I can’t help but make a comparison to the mob across town or, even worse, Jurgen Klopp’s Reds from Merseyside just a short distance down the East Lancs Road.
The latest product of Liverpool’s Academy, Trent Alexander – Arnold, proved a revelation at right-back in his first full season at the club, so much so that the 19-year-old ended his impressive debut campaign with a place on the plane to Russia as a member of England’s World Cup squad. On the opposite flank, young Scot Andrew Robertson, a £8 million purchase from Hull City, complimented his younger colleague perfectly.
Manchester City possesses arguably the league’s finest full-back in Kyle Walker, whilst a fully-fit Benjamin Mendy looks set to be the first choice on the left in 2018-19.
Tottenham have Kieran Trippier, England’s best player at the World Cup, and his compatriot Danny Rose bombing on down Spurs left flank. Dynamic, quick, agile and relatively young – the perfect combination for any top team, and indeed, any top defender, so it’s, therefore, no surprise that these six players have been the secret to their side’s swashbuckling style so championed by friend and foe alike.
Meanwhile, at Old Trafford, two ageing former wingers, both of whom are thirty-something, continue to ply their trade as regular first choice Manchester United full-backs. Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young have been brilliant, long-serving and loyal servants to our club, a symbol of serenity in the turbulent post-Sir Alex Ferguson era.
Valencia and Young – one year his Ecuadorian partner’s senior at 33, also perhaps epitomise the club’s scatter-gun transfer policy. For all the millions spent since Ferguson stepped down in 2013, the defence has been woefully under-invested and remains undermanned. The pair signed for United in 2010 and 2011 respectively and all these years on, it’s criminal that both Valencia and Young are still genuinely seen as a vital part of the first team set-up. Which other so-called ‘top club’ still has the same wing partnership that they did almost a decade ago. Particularly when that partnership are playing in a position that is still considered by many as nothing more than makeshift.
>Both are capable of the odd match-winning moment, or flashes of genius – witness Young’s Roberto Carlos-esque brace at Watford, or Valencia’s net-busting rocket vs Everton but, with all due respect, neither should be starting week in week out for a club of United’s size. Decent squad players maybe, but certainly not the progressive, forward-thinking and exciting players that we need to take the club forward. More often than not, crosses from wide areas fail to beat the first man, Valencia and Young don’t surge forward as they used to, meaning that there’s no natural width in the team and, as a result, much of United’s play is too narrow. One part of the problem would have been solved with the signing of Juventus left-back Alex Sandro, but any deal for the Brazilian looks unlikely with the player angling for a move to French giants PSG.
Timothy Fosu-Mensah, recently returned from his loan spell at Crystal Palace and perfectly fits the bill of everything a typical United player, not least a defender, should be. In his fledgeling career so far, Fosu-Mensah has continually caught the eye and, although not a full-back by trade, he can certainly do a job there. Whether he will get the opportunity to do so remains to be seen. New addition Diogo Dalot is one for the future and can provide cover, whilst Luke Shaw, our other full-back option, will be looking to put his struggles behind him and revive his fortunes. One thing’s for sure, Valencia and Young should no longer be the first name on Jose Mourinho’s team-sheet.