Manchester United have underachieved in the Premier League in recent years, but having conceded only 29 goals last season – second to only Tottenham Hotspur – the club’s problems aren’t defensive. United were frequently lacklustre in front of goal and despite Zlatan Ibrahimovic placing among the top scorers in the league, the club could only muster 54 goals in the Premier League last season. That was an unacceptable 24 goals behind fourth placed Liverpool. If United are going to mount a serious title challenge this season it goes without saying that they will need to improve on their scoring output.
This will be essential in turning those damaging draws into wins. United were able to create chances against teams that sat back and defended in numbers but often wasted those opportunities. On occasions when they did manage to gain a lead they would often then concede a goal on the counter at the other end. In a league where the winner often not only has the most wins but also the least draws, this is hugely detrimental. Attacking players Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan are all expected to improve on their first season under manager, Jose Mourinho.
United have also gone some way in addressing their profligacy in front of goal with the signing of Romelu Lukaku and should be harder to counter against with Nemanja Matic’s experience in sensing danger and protecting the back four, however, their attacking play has continued to lack fluidity throughout the preseason. This wouldn’t be viewed as much of a problem if they were a team that had shown the ability to score goals in bunches already. United are distinctly more effective at creating chances through the wide outlet of Valencia or the creativity of Pogba through the middle.
With how predictable United’s attacks are they can expect their opponents to load up in the centre and deny Antonio Valencia space on the right wing. The player most likely to be patrolling the opposite wing is Matteo Darmian. Known as a more defensive option when compared to his right sided counterpart, Darmian does not yet have the technical ability to be trusted to maintain a consistent attacking threat. United’s lack of width has been a persistent problem throughout the pre-season with teams allowing space in wide areas.
When Valencia hasn’t been available on the right wing and Martial isn’t patrolling the left United’s creativity has been limited. Should this continue United won’t be able to produce the type of goal return required to get into the top four, let alone mount a serious title challenge. When these opportunities present themselves to Darmian he will need to show the ability to deliver crosses as United are likely to have Pogba and possibly another player attacking the box in addition to the main striker. Darmian showed he can deliver a dangerous cross when he assisted Mkhitaryan’s header having received a play switching pass from the same player.
Darmian’s first touch on this occasion, however, was a poor one that went unpunished. At the level United need him to play this season, he may find that he squanders chances such as this if he does not improve that area of his game. Darmian has shown that he has the stamina to work tirelessly up and down the flank and does not lack the effort to be effective for the team. Although it would be a valuable bonus to be able to delivery with either foot, adding a layer of unpredictability to his own game, developing the ability to consistently keep the defence honest and provide a wide outlet for United anywhere near the level of Valencia would provide the key that United need to unlock the staunchest of Premier League defences.