First it was Andrei Kanchelskis, then David Beckham and then Cristiano Ronaldo. For the best part of two decades, Manchester United were alright on the right. For periods in that time, the player on the flank – in two cases, in the iconic No 7 shirt – was arguably the best in the team; possibly, in a couple of seasons, the best in the world.
Now two of the five most expensive signings in United’s history joined as right wingers. Both are unavailable. There are different reasons why Antony and Jadon Sancho are absent but if, after having spent almost £160m on the pair, the right wing should be one of the strongest departments of the United team, it was shaping up as a problem position even when manager Erik ten Hag could pick from both.
Antony is currently taking a leave of absence after allegations of assault from three women; if, as he insists, he is innocent, he needs to clear his name while, if guilty – and so far police in both England and Brazil are investigating but no charges have been brought – his disappearance could, and many would say should, become a permanent affair.
Sancho was omitted from the squad for the defeat to Arsenal because of his performances in training, Ten Hag said. The England international responded with a pinned tweet saying he had been made a “scapegoat”; United were willing to sell him for a suitably sizeable fee to Al-Ettifaq but only received a loan offer. For now, Sancho has been given a personal training programme as United decide which disciplinary action he should face.
If, with Antony out of the picture, there is added scope to reintegrate Sancho, Ten Hag seems to deem his public criticism too great a transgression to ignore. So far, though, United have derived too little benefit from either. Antony has one goal in his last 26 league games. In all competitions, he has eight in 48 United appearances and just three assists: a habit of cutting infield to shoot suggests he is scarcely likely to get too many more. The footballing verdict may be that he is one-footed, one-dimensional and at times, one-paced as well.
Sancho’s statistics are barely more impressive, with 12 goals and six assists in 82 games. If each forms a contrast with a more productive past – Beckham got 20 assists in one Champions League-winning season, 1998-99, and Ronaldo 42 goals in another, 2007-08 – there is a difference with Sancho’s own history, with his 17-goal, 16-assist Bundesliga campaign with Borussia Dortmund in 2019-20.
There is the sense each has been miscast: Antony as a United player, with Ten Hag’s fondness for his former Ajax player prompting them to pay an exorbitant £86m, and Sancho as a right winger, when he looks better equipped to operate from the left and where, rather than using raw pace to sprint into space, he is better at close-combination play.
Jadon Sancho has struggled to adapt on the right wing for Man United (Getty)
If the evidence is that Ten Hag does not believe Sancho is quick enough to be his type of winger, a recurring theme at Old Trafford is an imbalance, with a host of attackers preferring to play from the left than the right: in recent years, they include Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Alexis Sanchez, Jesse Lingard, Paul Pogba, Daniel James and Ronaldo. One exception, even if his long-term future seemed destined to be as United’s centre-forward, was Mason Greenwood, who brought more goals from the right than either Sancho or Antony. If United were far too slow to realise the 21-year-old could not resume his career at the club, belatedly aborting plans for his comeback, it could mean they have lost three options for the right flank in a matter of weeks.
This leaves Ten Hag with a problem as Brighton and Bayern Munich beckon. Of the youthful understudies, Amad Diallo (two Premier League starts in his career) is injured while Facundo Pellistri (none) is fit. Rashford or Martial could be moved into what is only the third-best position for each or Alejandro Garnacho into maybe his second-best. United rebuffed suggestions they could sign the free agent Anwar El Ghazi; that they were mooted indicated how plans have gone awry.
So an internal answer is required. Christian Eriksen had a profitable time for Tottenham when deployed off the right, though often as more of a No 10. If he was younger then and plays deeper and more centrally now, it may offer a hint to the best potential stand-in.
Christian Eriksen could be a left-field answer to United’s right-wing problem (PA Wire)
Ten Hag showed an occasional willingness to use Bruno Fernandes from the right last season, often with a licence to come infield. Amid the question of how to accommodate the captain and Mason Mount, and whether the deadline-day signing Sofyan Amrabat should give the midfield more ballast by partnering Casemiro at the base, a way to do it would be to field one of the attack-minded players, whether the Englishman or the Portuguese, as a nominal right winger. Mount is not fit yet, but Eriksen could play centrally and Fernandes on the right in the meantime. As Fernandes looked more creative than Antony on the right last season, it may add to a regular theme at Old Trafford: if something needs doing, ask Bruno to do it.
The reality that it is less than ideal to shift United’s premier No 10 is augmented by the fact United’s best-attacking right-back, Diogo Dalot, who could have overlapped before if the supposed winger was in midfield, is actually playing left-back now because of injuries there. There may be compromises across the team.
But then United have been making do on the right flank for various points in the 14 years since Ronaldo first left. There have been periods of excellence – Antonio Valencia won player of the year in 2011-12, Juan Mata excelled in 2014-15, albeit when the costlier Angel Di Maria was dropped, Greenwood delivered goals for a while – but if Sancho was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s preferred solution and Antony was Ten Hag’s expensive answer, now United find themselves with a familiar dilemma: who is the right man for the right?