Crowdless stadiums not only leave teams vulnerable to humiliations but players exposed to audible instructions you would hear during a Sunday league game. It has not gone unnoticed this season that Manchester United staff have had to tell their full-backs when to venture forward.
Luke Shaw has stopped waiting for the call and the left-back is rivalling Bruno Fernandes to reclaim the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year statue. For the first time all season in the evisceration of Southampton, Aaron Wan-Bissaka did not seek permission, either.
“I can’t remember the last time a full-back crossed for another full-back and scored for Man United,” Ole Gunnar Solskjaer remarked. “So someone needs to help me with that one.” It was Antonio Valencia for Patrice Evra at Bayern Munich in 2014.
United’s right-hand side, problematic for the best part of a decade, has been addressed with the investments in Wan-Bissaka and Amad Diallo, as well as the emergence of Mason Greenwood. On such a gung-ho night, Valencia seemed an incongruous namecheck from Solskjaer, the manager who released him in 2019.
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Manchester United smashed nine goals past Southampton on Tuesday night as they bounced back from disappointing results against Sheffield United and Arsenal in emphatic fashion.
The game was effectively over as a contest inside the first two minutes as Southampton were reduced to 10 men, but United still had to find the goals and they did exactly that, with Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Marcus Rashford, Edinson Cavani, Anthony Martial (two), Scott McTominay, Bruno Fernandes and Daniel James all getting on the scoresheet.
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“I think the right side has, traditionally, over the years been a challenge for us going forward,” he opined. “We haven’t found a right winger or right-back to fill the void left by Antonio when he left.
“Aaron is getting better and Mason’s performance tonight was excellent even though he didn’t score and that’s a good thing, that we scored nine goals and Mason didn’t get one. The two can form a good right side.”
Shaw’s cross and Wan-Bissaka’s prodded finish encapsulated their development from full-backs into de facto wingers. Notwithstanding the mitigation of Alexandre Jankewitz’s second-minute expulsion, the United full-backs’ average positions were almost midway inside the Southampton half and a press box colleague commented Wan-Bissaka was ‘like Cafu’ with one marauding surge. He has more league goals than Trent Alexander-Arnold this term.
“Yes, Azza,” the United coach Kieran McKenna chirped following his rush into the final third. Where there used to be a force field that halted Wan-Bissaka the 23-year-old is now forcing his way through it and, more than once, Bruno Fernandes high-fived him.
For the second game running, Wan-Bissaka was voted the man of the match by United supporters, which is some going for a defender in a joint-Premier League record annihilation when seven different players registered on the scoresheet.
Wan-Bissaka is an introvert by nature and that has been apparent in his performances ever since United invested £50million in him. Prior to his club debut in Perth, Paul Pogba collared Wan-Bissaka and worked his elbow joint, urging him to offer width as frequently as possible.
A one-time winger identified as a more suitable right-back by Crystal Palace coaches, Wan-Bissaka has experienced a rocky transition and at Bournemouth last season was so timid he was substituted for Ashley Young, a more adventurous alternative, with United a goal down.
In the first-half against Southampton, Mason Greenwood partnered Edinson Cavani in a front two and Wan-Bissaka abandoned right-back duties to embrace the role of the winger. He provided five crosses and three were successful – one deflecting into the feet of Anthony Martial for United’s eighth. He had more touches of the ball in Southampton’s penalty area than Donny van de Beek and was even caught offside.
United parked plans for a mid-season approach for the Atletico Madrid right-back and boyhood Red Kieran Trippier, banned from football for 10 weeks, and the departure of Timothy Fosu-Mensah has removed any shred of competition for Wan-Bissaka. To his credit, he has kicked on. All 13 of his forward passes against Southampton were accurate and only Greenwood embarked on more dribbles.
A competitor arrived for Shaw in Alex Telles and the Brazilian’s standout impact has been Shaw’s form. Removing Shaw at half-time was once tantamount to hammering another nail in his coffin but now it highlights his resurrection. Shaw trebled his assist tally for the season against his former club in just 45 minutes.
“He has played really well,” Solskjaer noted. “Of course, we have Alex who can cover and play well. With Luke, the intensity, sprint, and high speed running, we felt the spaces that appeared for him, if he played the second-half the same way he played in the first-half you always run a risk [of injury].”
Shaw had the ball in the Southampton area as many times as Greenwood and, in 45 minutes, produced just one fewer forward pass than Wan-Bissaka. Marcus Rashford received the ball more times from Shaw than any other teammate and only Fernandes played more ‘key passes’.
Wan-Bissaka’s finishing ratio is an amusing two goals from five attempts whereas Alexander-Arnold has had 28 punts, Reece James 26 and Kyle Walker 16. All three – and Trippier – are likelier to be in the England squad than Wan-Bissaka, gradually coming to accept full-backs are judged on their attacking rather than defending.
His crossing average per 90 minutes is still a meagre 1.66 (Alexander-Arnold’s is 5.91 and James’s 5.45) and Wan-Bissaka will have to pump those numbers up if he is to become as dependable a crosser as Gary Neville once was.
He shouldn’t need telling now, though.