In the past, one could forgive Wayne Rooney’s lack of goals on the rationale that he adds much more to the game than pure goal scoring. No longer of course but it follows logically that one can also criticise a player for doing little but scoring goals. It is perhaps a little harsh to apply the same argument to Park Ji Sung, who is not a goalscorer.
Crucial then that the Korean does add a lot more to the Manchester United side than few goals here and there.
Previously, this column argued that Park isn’t suited to a traditional 4-4-2, where players line up in broadly three ‘bands.’ The terms ‘wingers’ and ‘wide midfielders’ are used interchangeably. In practice it is a lot more nuanced than that of course; some players more attacking, some offer defensive support.
A subspecies of wingers, one that boasts Park and Dirk Kuyt, specialise less in wing wizardry but in defence. Still working high up the pitch, these players succeed in placing pressure on the opposition full-back.
Park’s greatest strength is his intelligence. His understanding and use of space and geometry on the pitch is second only to Rooney in the United squad. As such, the South Korean captain looks to roam, taking advantage of space and creating it for others.
Park’s movement enhances United’s dynamic front line. On the left of a 4-2-3-1 the South Korean’s nominal job is to mark the full-back. Yet, even if the full-back moves infield Park can, and often does, follow his opponent. Frequently United’s attacking central midfielder breaks ahead of the ball, and the lone forward – in that system – shifts to the flank in response.
This particular example is one of many team movements that happen in real games because of Park’s involvement. It is no accident that some recent hammerings handed out by United, such as the home game against Milan and away against Arsenal last season, involved Park – fluid movements can unsettle even the toughest of defence.
In flexible formations United’s players are in close proximity to Park and can switch position. By contrast, n classical 4-4-2 similar movements are harder and often unsettling. After all, an attacking central midfielder doing a stint up-front is easier conceptually than a striker dropping into central midfield. As such, when deployed in a 4-4-2, Park must stick closely to his position or risk leaving United vulnerable to counters. The ultimate irony of using a defensive winger – a tactic that is rather cowardly – is that it often results in fluid movement, the hallmark of modern attacking football.
Adding to the irony is the fact that defensive wingers like Park often require a high tempo, pressing game with a high line. It’s another trait of the modern game. Much of Park’s defensive role is based on tireless harrying, forcing the team to press and United’s defence to push up. Most of the time, United’s players are prescient enough to move up or drop deep depending on the situation. Last Monday United defended deep and played a pressing game contemporaneously – a tactical marvel.
Since Park’s game is much more suited to flexible systems, it is no mystery that he play’s better when the Reds deploy various takes on 4-5-1. But fluidity only partially makes up for the former PSV player’s limited technique. When Park is in a good patch of form, he can control the ball at least long enough to pass it. When the Korean is playing badly, he gives the ball away cheaply.
Technically exceptional players are also much less prone to losing possession under pressure. As such, gifted opposition players can play around Park and exploit the gap that pops up as United players shift position. The Champions League Final against Barcelona a year ago is an example.
With Gabriel Obertan and Bébé making little notable progress, Park will remain first choice. But as the Korean will soon leave for the Asian Cup, United will have to experiment with existing players, perhaps recalling Cleverley from loan, or bring in somebody new.
With impending retirements of senior figures, availability of classy playmakers on the market, promise of youngsters on the wing and a supposedly sizeable transfer kitty the safest option might be to purchase Javier Pastore – a central midfield playermaker – and push Rooney to the left.
Another option is to bequeath the playmaking role to Anderson, push Rooney left and trust Dimitar Berbatov or Javier Hernández up-front. And if United can make it work without him, Park is likely to be moved on in the coming summer, for there are many reasons for his departure.
The South Korea captain leaves for the Asian Cup at the end of December, at conclusion of which he will retire from the national team, citing his wish to concentrate on his club career. It’s an important winter for the player who is about to turn thirty.
Yet, his national service swan song could be swiftly met by an adieu from United.