While all the focus has been on Manchester United’s weakness in central defence, there is an arguably more immediate area for concern. Toby Alderweireld, Harry Maguire, Yerry Mina, Diego Godin and countless other centre backs were linked with a move to Old Trafford this summer. None of the proposed moves materialised. Virtually no talk of a revamp on United’s right flank of defence occurred, other than Diogo Dalot arriving as a long-term investment. With Timothy Fosu-Mensah out on loan again, perhaps the right-back answer has been there all along.
Antonio Valencia, Matteo Darmian, Diogo Dalot or Timothy Fosu-Mensah?
Club captain Antonio Valencia is into his 10th season at United, and at the age of 33 is slowing down considerably. Whereas once he used to bomb past markers, his default action on the ball is to stop and pass back inside. Matteo Darmian was on the verge of departing to little ceremony but has remained for now. Dalot arrived swiftly but with next to no top-flight experience is unlikely to be thrown into the deep end yet as he acclimatises.
Mixed sample pool
The sample pool is a little disjointed admittedly. Dalot has been discounted for now given his age, and lack of experience in his homeland and especially in England. That leaves Valencia, Darmian and Fosu-Mensah. Valencia was the first-choice right back last season and was playing in his preferred position. Crystal Palace loaned Fosu-Mensah last season and played the Dutchman at centre back and right back for a total of 20 appearances. Darmian more often than not was played out of position on the left side of defence, and only played seven times.
Nevertheless, the statistics are telling. Firstly, Fosu-Mensah – the tallest of the three – won almost twice as many tackles (1.81) per 90 minutes as Valencia (1.06). Darmian, meanwhile, despite playing out of position and infrequently at that, made almost three times as many successful tackles (2.86) as Valencia. At the same time, the Italian lost by far the most tackles per 90 (3.64). Fosu-Mensah and Valencia recorded almost identical numbers in this department with 2.01 and 2.16 respectively.
This shows how Darmian committed to far more challenges than his counterparts and left himself exposed. The rashness of his approach is harmful within a rigid system. Fosu-Mensah was playing partly in the centre where he was less likely to encounter wingers running at pace directly at him and therefore was less likely to have more dangerous one-on-one situations to deal with.
Nowadays, of course, the impact going forward is almost more important than these numbers. Fosu-Mensah comes out on top for successful take-on percentage – 64.71% compared to Valencia’s 60.47% and Darmian’s 50%. On chances created, however, Valencia is streets ahead. His 0.74 chances created per game is more than double Fosu-Mensah’s 0.35, and nearly four times greater than Darmian’s 0.20.
This is a result of Valencia’s crossing and passes inside the fullbacks when he ventures further downfield. With his ever-diminishing pace, these are more fruitful options to offer creativity. It may, however, come to the detriment of the team’s overall attacking threat. When he drifts inside, it makes the space more confined and easier to defend against with too many bodies in a small space.
Valencia’s superior average successful passes per 90 minutes of 43.66 is again far better than Fosu-Mensah’s 24.27 and Darmian’s 32.76. A lot of United’s play out defence came down the right through Valencia, giving him plenty of time on the ball.
Finally, while Valencia and Darmian share very similar pass completion percentages of 84% and 85% respectively, Fosu-Mensah only boasts 74%. Valencia’s experience and slower pace on the ball has forced him to select his passes more wisely. While it retains possession, it is also a product of his lack of ambition as mentioned earlier. Where those passes go is an obvious major factor in the successful ratio.
The decision to release Fosu-Mensah out on loan is bemusing in many ways. Since arriving from Ajax’s youth system four years ago, he has blossomed into a full international. When the need for greater urgency on the flanks comes, however, he is deemed unready. It doesn’t send a good message that the strongest potential youth product in his position is below an untested 19-year-old Portuguese prospect, a 33-year-old veteran and an out of sorts utility man.
For a more adventurous approach, Fosu-Mensah would have been an obvious solution to some of United’s ponderous play. One can discount Darmian from the discussion as he is clearly nowhere near the long-term plans of United. Dalot will be a future right back. Right now though, simply sticking with the status quo appears to be Mourinho’s choice. The question is whether Valencia is, in fact, costing the effectiveness of his more advanced teammates.