This season the wing play hasn’t been as good as it was last season. The current difficulty is Sancho’s lack of chemistry with the team and Mason’s proclivity to come onto the inside. It means Shaw and AWB haven’t been involved as much as the last season and the former is a big miss.
In both the Newcastle and Young Boys games there were multiple times wherein the flanks could’ve been used more. However, as soon as the ball went wider, and the receiver couldn’t do anything direct with it, it went back to the centre. There wasn’t much negotiation out wide.
This is something Rashford brings in abundance from the left. He already has excellent chemistry with Shaw and his aggressiveness on the ball either results in direct progression or it creates gravity through which others (eg Bruno) benefit.
Another benefit is Ronaldo who excels in finishing off wide delivery. So far he’s not had great service from the wings and has had to duel with multiple players to even find position in the box. Improving their width play benefits him massively which helps the team overall.
The best way to open low blocks is to exploit space. However, if you attack so centrally you’ll never do that because teams horizontally shuttle quite easily in the PL. If you intend to remain centrally, which is bad, then you must move the ball quicker which they don’t.
So, the alternative, in addition to getting better at moving it quicker, is to emphasize their width play as they’ll either (1) create central space due to drawing the wider opposition or (2) create opportunities through combinations down the wings. It’ll only benefit the team either way.
The fact they’ve remained only centrally at times has meant that when the ball has gone wider only Ronaldo (sometimes Mason) has been in the box. Sustained pressure helps them get more numbers in the box which, again, is something that only brings about benefit for the team.
The West Ham game might not give them many opportunities for this — they tend to attack them even directly — but if they do end up with sustained ending third pressure I’d like to see more use of the flanks with better combinations and more patience.
An indirect benefit of doing so is that possession losses tend to be easier to defend in transitioning as the ball is already wider. This season, many of their defensive transitions — they must work on them too — have come centrally as they’ve mostly played there.
Defensively transitioning in central zones is inherently more difficult than in wider zones simply due to larger spaces which lead to greater unpredictability. If we focus more on our width play it’ll help them close down that potential space when defending which only helps.
In addition, they have midfielders who still like to dive into challenges and defending wider spaces is far more conducive for that. It doesn’t eliminate the problem, of course, but it mitigates it to an extent and even facilitates it a bit due to the lack of space.
In any case, it’s an issue they’ve had this season and becoming better at it will definitely lead to a far more proficient offensive unit than the one they’ve currently seen this season in terms of overall performance against low blocks.