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Manchester United’s wingers must show they are up to the job

This was going to be a piece about the worrying decline of Antonio Valencia, whose abject display against Chelsea on Sunday was that of a man who has forgotten what he is good at. But the truth is none of Manchester United’s first-team wingers have had a season to write home about. In fact you would be hard-pressed to recall the last great performance from any of Valencia, Nani or Ashley Young.

When Valencia moved to Old Trafford in 2009, he was talked of as one of the league’s best wide-men, and as he began beating fullbacks and supplying inch-perfect crosses, it was clear why Sir Alex Ferguson parted with £12million for his services. The Ecuadorian made wing-play look easy.  He broke it down to its simplest form – knock it and run. And his speed meant he won the race more often than not.

Antonio Valencia

When Wayne Rooney enjoyed arguably his best season to date, when everyone started referring to his head as a goal-scoring threat as deadly as his feet – that was down to Valencia. There were no tricks in his armoury, no step-overs or showboating. He ran. He crossed. And United invariably scored.
So who was the player wearing number 7 on Sunday? The player who beat himself more often than his opponent? It certainly wasn’t the man who was voted both fans’ and players’ Player of the Year last season, nor the man who came back from a horrific ankle break to become one of his team’s most consistent performers.

It would be easy to say the pressure of the number on his back has got the better of him. But do players really notice what is behind them when they are so focused on what is ahead? Can a number so significantly alter a mind-set?

With the impending arrival of Wilfried Zaha, many expected Nani to make way. But in United’s last two games it was the Portuguese player’s departure (for two very different reasons) that had a detrimental effect on the team. So perhaps Zaha will be taking the place of Valencia next season, a man who has forgotten that in football, if you can win the race, the goal is all but scored.

Nani

And yet two brief cameos and being championed in his absence should not disguise the fact that Nani has been equally erratic this season. Unquestionably talented, there came a time – back in 2010 – when it all made sense. Outstanding displays against Manchester City and Arsenal showed a winger of terrifying ability, clinical, incisive, a man very much in tune with his talent.

It seemed that finally the penny had dropped. But three years later, it is clear that Nani is a man for whom the penny drops often, only to be forgotten again shortly after. Both United fans and the wider football world must sometimes wonder what he could achieve with consistency. But perhaps that is a trait to be born with or learnt as much as any other in football.

The last of United’s three wide-men, Ashley Young, is the least so in the traditional sense. A right-footed player on the left, it is his natural and often effective inclination to cut inside and cross. He doesn’t beat a man, he stands up to them and relies on his foot to find the box regardless. It was a skill that led his former manager at Aston Villa, Martin O’Neill, to call him “world class”. And it was a skill that has resulted in some truly outstanding goals for his current club, most notably an unstoppable double in the 8-2 win over Arsenal in 2011.

Ashley Young

And yet the truth is United lack pace; which is something of an indictment on the three men employed to supply it. It is no coincidence that Ferguson did all he could to secure Lucas Moura in the summer. In his short time at PSG he has shown just what all the fuss was about.

Perhaps on his arrival, Zaha will share the fearlessness of the likes of Raheem Sterling and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, adding directness to his new team and shaking up the old guard.

But whatever happens, if United’s current wingers wish to remain, they need to find the form that some have displayed for seasons and others only for games.

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Shinji Kagawa and a glimpse of things to come for Manchester United fans

When Shinji Kagawa joined Manchester United for an initial fee of £12million in the summer, many football observers were calling it a masterstroke.

After all, this was the player who ended his last season at Borussia Dortmund with 17 goals, 10 assists and both a Bundesliga and German Cup winner’s medal.

His partnership with Robert Lewandowski had helped turn Dortmund into the top team in German football, while his ball-control, vision and goal-scoring ability pointed to a 23-year-old who was exactly the kind of playmaker United were crying out for.

Fans frustrated at losing out on Eden Hazard and Lucas Moura could calm themselves in the knowledge that a quieter but no less impressive player was heading their way. And yet this season, the Japanese midfielder-cum-forward has shown only flickers of his undoubted ability.

Shinji Kagawa

That was until Saturday, when his hat-trick against Norwich City ended any doubts that he was cut out for the Premier League, or suited to any position besides that of a second striker.

While his first goal could be argued as a lucky one, his positioning was key, as was the confidence to take it on the outside of his right foot. But it was his second and third that should excite United fans the most.

The nonchalant side-foot finish for his second was that of a player whose thoughts are somehow quicker than the game he is caught up in. While his third saw his first touch dissect the Norwich defence and his second touch delicately chip the onrushing ‘keeper.

After each goal he celebrated only with a smile, as if he was used to it, or at least had been, and he was simply relieved it was happening once more.

One game does not make a player. Just ask Andrei Arshavin. But on Saturday, Kagawa showed what he is capable of. And the fans who have seen glimpses of his passing ability and ball-retention over the last six months, have now seen what he can do when he is fit and a little more used to his surroundings.

Ultimately, his best performances may come at Old Trafford, when opponents tire and the attacking intent of his teammates leads to holes for him to exploit. And certainly away against the top sides both domestically and in Europe his ability to keep the ball may prove more important than where he can put it. But for fans crying out for a creative, goal-scoring midfielder, Saturday may have seen him stake his first claim for the job.

The rumours continue that Kagawa’s former teammate Lewandowksi will be joining him at Old Trafford next season. Whether they need him is another matter. But with or without him, Kagawa has found his feet.

They are very special feet indeed. And by next season, they could have the beating of most.

Manchester United miss out again as Lucas Moura joins PSG revolution

The decision by teenage Brazilian star Lucas Moura to join Paris Saint-Germain instead of Manchester United represents another significant coup for the oil-rich French side while simultaneously putting a dent in Sir Alex Ferguson’s summer transfer endeavours.

The move will no doubt drag up memories for many United fans and possibly even Fergie of a failed pursuit of one Ronaldinho Gaucho back in 2001. PSG won the race to sign that particular Brazilian too and Ferguson was again beaten to the punch as the player joined Barcelona two years later. Ronaldinho was then crowned FIFA world player of the year in both 2004 and 2005. Whether Lucas Moura’s quality is enough to scale these dizzying heights remains to be seen.

Some would point to the 19-year-old’s price tag, reported to be in excess of £35 million, as being vastly over-inflated for a youngster who has yet to be really tested outside of South America. It seems though, that United may have been willing to part with a similar figure for the player’s services before the Parisian outfit intervened.

Moura’s agent, Wagner Ribeiro, claims that Sao Paulo and United had reached an agreement over the teenager and that they were ready to finalise the move before former Brazil hero turned PSG director Leonardo convinced the player to join the newly bulging squad at the Parc des Princes.

There has been no comment from Old Trafford confirming that they were close to landing the player but Sir Alex had taken the unusual step of admitting interest in the Sao Paulo man and the papers had speculated over the player’s transfer to United for weeks. His decision therefore represents a blow for United who seem intent on adding another creative midfielder to their squad.

Shinji Kagawa has arrived from Borussia Dortmund and Nick Powell has joined from Crewe but many United fans are demanding further investment in the middle of the park and it would seem that the manager agrees given his failed pursuit of Moura. Unfortunately for Ferguson this is the second time United have lost a transfer race this summer with Eden Hazard electing to join Chelsea.

With the old Trafford supremo a keen advocate of getting value for money rather than bolstering his squad unnecessarily, those sections of the United support clamouring for a significant midfield arrival should not hold their breath. The Manchester outfit however, continue to be linked with a range of players and some sections of the press have pointed to a move for Ajax’s Christian Eriksen or Isco from financially troubled Malaga. Should the long serving boss identify either man as a viable option then supporters will be hoping that he can seal a deal at the third time of asking.  United also look keen on strengthening in other areas with the Robin Van Persie saga trundling the media also reporting a lingering interest in Everton’s Leighton Baines.

PSG meanwhile continue to up the ante in the European transfer market as they look to claim Ligue 1 for the first time since 1994 and challenge Europe’s big guns in the Champions League. Argentine Javier Pastore was the first real statement of intent arriving last summer but this transfer window has seen the French side really move things up a gear with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, Ezequiel Lavezzi and now Lucas Moura, who will remain in Brazil until January, all added to what must surely now be an impressive payroll.

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