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If Manchester United are to continue their challenge for major trophies under Erik ten Hag then it is crucial they avoid becoming predictable via an over-reliance on one or two players.
Ten Hag ended United’s six-year trophy drought at the first time of asking last month, a 2-0 win against Newcastle at Wembley handing them the Carabao Cup. Casemiro opened the scoring that day when powering home Luke Shaw’s irresistible free-kick before Marcus Rashford fired a second in off Sven Botman’s outstretched leg.
It felt fitting that United’s season highlight to this point came predominantly down their left and from two of their outstanding performers in Shaw and Rashford. Both have endured their fair share of struggles in red over the years but the arrival of Ten Hag has seen them rejuvenated – an ever-present partnership dominating the left flank.
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It’s a stark contrast from what is occurring on the opposite side, with neither Antony nor Jadon Sancho nailed on at right-wing while Ten Hag still seems unsure on when and where to back Diogo Dalot or Aaron Wan-Bissaka at right-back.
The squad dynamic down the left is a perfect one: two senior stars in Rashford and Shaw enjoying their best form in years while young support acts – Alejandro Garnacho and Tyrell Malacia – lie in want and impact games when called upon. The hierarchy is clear and it is working.
The situation on the opposite flank could not be further away from that, with four players fighting for two places and no-one standing out.
Antony was expected to be United’s clear first-choice down the right by now, having signed from Ajax for £86million last summer and making an instant impression with a wonderful goal on his debut against Arsenal. Since then it has been a campaign of brilliant moments followed by longer spells of frustration.
His main rival for a place on the wing is Sancho, who has the will of all around Old Trafford to bounce back from a long spell out of the first-team picture with a return to the form enjoyed at Borussia Dortmund. Unfortunately, that seems some way off and Ten Hag’s decision to play the 22-year-old in a No.10 role is a clear indication the Dutchman is unsure what to do with him.
A step back presents even less clarity for Ten Hag, with the right-back role split straight down the middle. Dalot was the dominant force pre-World Cup with 20 starts to Wan-Bissaka’s zero. Injury to the Portuguese defender opened the door after Christmas and Wan-Bissaka started six consecutive games, but a return to fitness leaves both on equal footing and uncertainty as to who is the main man.
United are expected to invest heavily in the squad this summer as Ten Hag builds a side that can challenge for Premier League and Champions League honours. The Dutchman will expect two major signings come June with both a world-class striker and midfielder top of the list.
But other weak points within the current crop will be assessed, and the lack of influence coming down the right-hand side leaves those fighting for football vulnerable of being told to find it elsewhere. Ten Hag has already been ruthless in his cutting of club captain Harry Maguire from the first-team picture, and the England centre-back will not be the only one likely shown out the exit door.
Where Dalot, Wan-Bissaka, Sancho and Antony differ from Maguire is that they will have plenty of opportunity between now and June to stake their claim as a part of Ten Hag’s long-term plans. The Reds boss will continue to rotate that side of the pitch through the remaining months, expecting two to elevate themselves from the competition like Shaw and Rashford have already done.