Against Atalanta on Tuesday evening, after Cristiano Ronaldo did what Cristiano Ronaldo does best, Manchester United went close to recreating yet another iconic comeback with a chance falling to the feet of substitute Donny van de Beek on the left side of the penalty box. The ball into the Dutchman was from Jadon Sancho, another player that had to make his impact from the bench.
Alas, United’s no.34’s shot from a tight angle was well saved, but the combination between the two players that came on in the 87th minute was one of the few impressive pieces of play throughout the match. That says a lot.Embed from Getty Images
Baring a brilliant sequence of play on the edge of half-time, which saw Ronaldo score his first of the game, United rarely got past second gear in the attacking third throughout the night, and that’s why it took a piece of utter magic in the 92nd minute to salvage a point for the Red Devils.
The chance that fell to the out of favour midfielder a minute later was by no means an easy one, but the initial play from Sancho and the pass to the venturing midfielder – who made one of his traditional runs into space inside the area – was neat stuff, and almost lead to a winning goal.
Ultimately, though, it didn’t. So why does it matter?
Well, considering the pair have completed just two matches between them this season, and had been given a matter of minutes to attempt to save the result, you couldn’t expect much. This piece of play, though, was one reason why many supporters think that they would compliment each other on the pitch.
You have a wide-creator who is constantly wanting the ball and looking to play intricate passes into dangerous areas and a number ten that would rather do his work off the ball, looking to get into the spaces that a creator like Sancho loves to play into. That’s what happened for the chance against Atalanta, why hasn’t it happened more?
Well, they haven’t really had the chance. Apart from United’s loss to West Ham in the Carabao Cup in September, the two of them had played just 33 minutes together prior to their cameos in the Champions League on Tuesday. Both of them were brought off before half-time against Young Boys with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer looking to find balance in his side after Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s sending off.Embed from Getty Images
This time around, the United manager was impressed with how both Sancho and Van de Beek faired in their short appearances.
“I thought the qualities they have could make an impact,” Solskjaer explained to MUTV.
“Jadon was sharp. We wanted a little bit more width on the side because we put Edinson on. Bruno played well and you want him out there, but I felt we needed a little bit more width to get the crosses in for Edinson or Cristiano.
“Donny provided the run for the last goal and he keeps working, He’s got qualities in there to unlock close defences and he almost scored as well. I thought all of those who came on did well.”
We all know the struggles that the team are experiencing at the back, with their only clean sheet of the season coming against Tottenham Hotspur last weekend, but there are also significant troubles going forward.
Relying on Cristiano Ronaldo’s magic will only get United so far, and that isn’t far enough. They need to improve their offensive play and be less predictable. Everybody knows the threat that the Reds pose on the counter, and that’s why Atalanta’s backline was so deep in possession at the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia.
Improving their attacking display could start at utilising their £73 million signing more often. Then they could look to complement his play by bringing Van de Beek into the fold. His lack of involvement last season was more understandable when United were so reliant on Bruno Fernandes’ creativity from the centre, but with the addition of Sancho, that creative burden should have already have lifted, but it’s been more of the same for United this season.Embed from Getty Images
United’s no.18 tops the chances created charts for both the Premier League and Champions League, but United aren’t dominating in the final third like Liverpool or Manchester City. It isn’t outrageous to claim that something needs to change in United’s frontline.
This isn’t necessarily saying that Fernandes should be placed on the bench for a player in Van de Beek that is yet to really show why he was purchased for £40 million, but perhaps to attempt to see why that player was in the 30-man shortlist for the 2019 Ballon d’Or at just 23 years of age, and a much-wanted talent across Europe before his signing at Old Trafford.
A possible solution could see United’s Portuguese playmaker operate in a different role, from the right or left. Four of his eight assists so far this campaign have come from crosses in wide areas.
While he wouldn’t be able to have the same impact on the ball that he has centrally; Bruno could still drift into those areas to overload the middle and then also create chances through drifting into the half-space, as he does usually.
Donny van de Beek is yet to start three matches in a row for United since joining in August 2020. He’s not had the chance to show what he’s about — either having to try and take the creative burden from Bruno or needing to operate deeper in order to get any sort of game-time.
He isn’t a midfielder that is going to create a ridiculous amount of chances like his counterpart, but Donny is the facilitator of such playmakers – like Sancho. His footballing brain and technical ability allow him to execute quick one-twos and flicks in tight spaces, with a perfect example being his assist for Juan Mata against Brighton in the Carabao Cup last season.
It’s no coincidence that the midfielder gets into these dangerous positions to receive the ball either. He’s one of the very best at making runs into or around the penalty area, and then either looking to play the final pass or finish it off himself. Unfortunately, it’s something that has not been seen enough at Old Trafford, mainly due to his lack of game-time, but also due to the persistent usage of him in deeper areas when he is finally selected.
At Ajax, Van de Beek often found himself receiving the ball in high-value areas inside the penalty area because of his impressive movement. This graphic made by the brilliant UtdArena shows this perfectly; with so many of his incisive passes coming on the left or the right side of the penalty area (very similar to the area he found himself in the last minute against Atalanta).
And we all know that Sancho loves to find players in these areas. In fact, over the course of the last 365 days, the English winger has completed, on average, 2.98 passes into the penalty area every 90 minutes – that’s in the top 1% of players in Europe’s top five leagues over the period.
The winger loves to create for potent runners, such as Erling Haaland. So it’s no surprise that he created a chance for his fellow substitute after a matter of minutes on the pitch together. They could help solve some of United’s troubles against settled defences and stop Cristiano Ronaldo from having to score last-minute winners… and equalisers.
Of course, there are many attacking talents, such as Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford, who have seven goals between them so far this season.
This isn’t to say that Jadon Sancho and Donny van de Beek should definitely be starting ahead of all of their impressive teammates, but they both offer something different to the others. And Manchester United need something different. It’s worth a try.