There are three certainties in life: death, taxes and Manchester United winning by a one-goal margin.
The Reds chalked up their seventh win of the season in all competitions on Tuesday night, beating FC Copenhagen 1-0 at Old Trafford to secure their first Champions League triumph of the campaign. Harry maguire netted the only goal to boost the home side’s chances of progressing to the last-16 of the competition.
In typical United fashion, one goal was enough to get the job done. Six of their seven wins this term have been by an odd goal, with the only exception being their 3-0 win over Crystal Palace in the third round of the Carabao Cup last month.
Just as he did against Sheffield United at Bramall Lane 72 hours earlier, manager Erik ten hag tasked Marcus Rashford, Rasmus hojlund and Antony with leading the attack for what, quite simply, was a must-win encounter. Yet Maguire, who started for the third game running, was the only man to find a way past Kamil Grabara in the Copenhagen goal
Antony, who started on the opposite flank, did not test Grabara all evening. He had one shot that failed to bring the former Liverpool goalkeeper into action.
Those statistics tell you everything you need to know about United’s below-par attacking output so far this season. Summer signing Hojlund, who was drafted in from Atalanta to increase United’s threat inside the final third, has three goals to his name so far, meaning he has been the club’s most fruitful attacker this term, though it is far from earth-shattering.
The fact of the matter is, however, United’s wide players are not offering anywhere near enough in front of goal. Ten Hag has used five out-and-out wingers so far this season, calling on Alejandro Gernacho Facundo Pellistri and Jadon Sancho in addition to Rashford and Anthony and they have produced just two goals between them.
That is simply not good enough for the stage in the season we are now at. Rashford, who scored 30 times last season, has netted just one goal so far this term, while Antony’s run of games without a goal now stands at 17. Garnacho is the only other winger to have scored so far this season, scoring in the Carabao Cup win over Palace.
As with most situations in football, there are a handful of caveats to point out, those being Antony’s recent spell out of the team, Garnacho and Pellistri mainly being used as impact players from the bench, Sancho’s exile and endless injury issues disrupting the team’s rhythm and hopes of building any kind of momentum. Though those scenarios have not helped matters, the point still stands.
Between them, United’s five senior wingers have racked up 40 appearances so far this season. When you consider that group consists of a player who scored 30 goals last season and two players who cost the club a combined fee north of £150million, it is eye-opening.
Ever since walking through the door at Old Trafford, Ten Hag has made it clear that he wants to turn United into the best possession-based team in the world. That plan very much remains a work in progress, such is United’s difficulty with controlling games in midfield.
They remain better suited to playing on the counter-attack, catching teams on the break with their pace and power in transition. But without wingers who are capable of finishing those moves off, it counts for little.
Though it was only one moment, Garnacho’s spurned opportunity in the second half against Copenhagen, when his final touch was too heavy, was a prime example of where the Reds’ wide players are going wrong. They need to find a way to improve their composure.
With Sancho currently out of the picture, Rashford, Antony, Garnacho and Pellistri are vying for the two wide berths. None of them, however, have done enough to suggest they actually deserve them.
It is why Ten Hag, one way or another, needs to find a way to get them firing, not least Rashford. United need goals and their wingers should be providing them.