There is no proper winger at Manchester United – even Jesse Lingard prefers to come into the centre from the right flank. This is fine – very few top teams play with a genuine winger. Most do, however, deploy attacking full-backs to provide width.
Unlike last season, Louis van Gaal has been remarkably consistent with his tactics since August. Bar two games, United has played in a patient 4-2-3-1 this season. The Reds’ central midfielders, while unspectacular, have quietly done their jobs, while the odd centre back pairing of Daley Blind and Chris Smalling has so far held up in the Premier League.
United’s wingers, on the other hand, have performed poorly. Memphis Depay has been relegated to the bench, while Jesse Lingard has enjoyed enough decent games to ensure that he is now the preferred option to the slower Juan Mata on the right. It is doubtful though that Lingard is a long term solution though.
Full-backs have been a problem area this season. Luke Shaw’s traumatic injury forced Van Gaal to take a punt on an untested academy graduate, while Matteo Darmian is a solid defensive full-back rather than a genuine attacking one.
United’s early season form ended with Luke Shaw’s traumatic injury at PSV Eindhoven. The team’s recent return to form has come after preternaturally composed Cameron Borthwick-Jackson’s introduction into the first team. This is no coincidence.
In our analysis team performance, as measured by Squawka, has little relationship with striker or right back performance, also measured by Squawka.
The relationship between the Reds’ performance and left-back performance, however, is much more significant. This result is hard to explain. In earlier Data Rant analysis United’s right-back had a much more significant correlation with team performance.
Indeed, the left flank was not much of a “problem area” back in November. It could be that Darmian’s return to form and Lingard’s introduction into the first team has improved United’s right flank to the point where it is no longer dragging the rest of the team down.
But why has the left flank become so vitally linked to overall performance? Perhaps Anthony Martial’s more recent move to the left has prompted the team to channel play down the left.
Whatever the reason, United plays better when Borthwick-Jackson also plays well. In other words, should the 19-year-old have an off-day, so do the Reds.
Borthwick-Jackson boasts pace and exceptional crossing that has already seen him notch up an assist. However, the academy graduate still needs to work on his runs.
Notice, below, Borthwick-Jackson’s positioning in the defensive phase. Playing alongside Blind more or less rules the Englishman out as a passing option. In this example from United’s recent draw with Chelsea Willian would have closed Borthwick-Jackson down and forced the Englishman to give the ball back to Blind.
Again, Borthwick-Jackson was slow going forward. Mata’s ball could have been directed towards Martial with the full back providing an outlet out left.
However, below, Borthwick-Jackson’s advanced positioning granted him space to pick out onrushing United players, including Martial in a central position.
Compare Borthwick-Jackson’s passes received in the Chelsea game and Jordi Alba’s in Barcelona’s recent game against Levante. Alba, a proper attacking full-back, received a lot of passes in the middle third whereas the United full-back received few in the middle of the pitch. This speaks to Borthwich-Jackson’s arriving late in more advanced areas.
Correlation does not imply causation, of course, but Borthwick-Jackson should be encouraged to become a more attacking full-back. With United reliant on his performance, Borthwick-Jackson could hold the key to breaking United’s monotonous pattern of attack and perhaps making the top four.
Borthwick-Jackson has done an exceptional job given his age. Given the maturity the Englishman has shown to date, it is perhaps uncouth to keep pointing out his age. If he is good enough, he is old enough.
Still, it is worth pointing out that United is reliant on a player who will not be able to buy beer should the Reds go on an American tour in next few years.
All data from Squawka. Assumptions dictating linear regression have not been held strict.