Do United need a tall target man to make the most of Antonio Valencia’s devastating speed and crossing ability?
The Ecuador international is enjoying a fine debut season in Red since his £16 million transfer from Wigan and has done much to justify the manager’s return to a 4-4-2 formation.
Valencia has also played a significant role in helping United to register a higher league goal return than last season, when Cristiano Ronaldo patrolled the right flank. Indeed, Valencia is currently on something of a hot streak having scored in four of his last seven Premier League games at Old Trafford.
The winger was again the provider when supplying an inch perfect pass from the right which resulted in Giggs’ easy opening goal in the first leg of the League Cup semifinal against City.
The home side’s canny tactical redeployment prevented Valencia from doing further damage and the winger gradually drifted to the game’s periphery, as a disappointing United slipped to defeat.
Sir Alex's game plan for Valencia is simple enough as to be almost banal. The winger hugs the touchline, dragging wide the fullback in a classic effort to make space against teams defending a high line.
United’s midfield are under orders to find the player at the earliest opportunity with long high passes. They then race forward in the expectation that Valencia will beat his opposing defender for pace, head for the bye-line, and deliver a cross.
The ploy, in football terms as old as Sir Bobby Charlton, has proved successful for United this season and the source of more than a few of the champions’ goals.
Yet, it may be the case that United could benefit still more from the rich potential offered by the winger’s accurate crossing if they could field a tall striker.
Rooney is, in modern terms, a short centre forward. The taller Berbatov is useful in the air but it is rare that he attacks the high ball with the appetite of a powerhouse forward in the Drogba mould. The reserve Owen is happiest when he receives the ball at his feet.
New boy Diouf showed excellent spring in claiming United’s third goal against Burnley last weekend but looks to be the latest in a long Red tradition of medium height players with an undistinguished aerial presence—Joe Jordan and Dion Dublin notwithstanding.
This is not a problem, of course, should Valencia aim his crosses low. Traditionally, United are a "proper" football side, schooled to keep the ball down and play into feet.
Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool team, which also follows this philosophy, was tempted into fielding the bean pole Peter Crouch. The result was all too predictable. The temptation to pump aimless high balls into the box was irresistible. The experiment in direct football was quickly abandoned and Crouch was sold to Portsmouth.
Yet, there is an obvious logic in having a tall centre forward who can convert the chances likely to be created by a speedy orthodox winger with the beating of any of the division’s fullbacks.
Will this factor influence Sir Alex should he decide to bring in a new striker? If newspaper gossip is to be believed, most definitely!
Wolfsburg's centre forward Edin Dzeko is said to be on Ferguson’s radar and has the attributes to profit from the threat of Valencia.
Fans learned from the Telegraph last November that United scouts have been regular visitors to Germany to keep tabs on the 23-year-old hit man with a view to a £20 million-plus summer bid.
Assistant manager Mike Phelan summed up the Bosnian’s qualities on the eve of United’s Champions League match against the German champions last December.
“Any major football league would be interested in a player like that and I'm sure there are numerous clubs looking at him as a possible target," Phelan said.
"He has shown good form and he is a talented footballer. We are looking at talent all the time and we are in there with the rest of them. He appeals because he is a tall boy and is skillful and in some ways he is an ideal player for the league in England. He has stature, his feet are good and he is producing some very good performances. I am sure everybody has looked at him and thought about him.”
Phelan is right. All the top teams are now monitoring one of the hottest properties in European football, with AC Milan currently favourites for the player’s signature.
Dzeko may be out of United’s reach but other candidates may be more easily attainable. It is surely the longest of long shots but with United’s £700 million debt likely to deprive the club of the continent’s more expensive talent, perhaps Carlton Cole or, deep breath, Emile Heskey, might give Sir Alex the aerial power option he currently lacks.
Neither forward immediately springs to mind as a "United player" but Sir Alex knows that Heskey combines well with Rooney. Cole may prove to be even better in the "Heskey" role than Heskey himself and may be prised from West Ham for an affordable fee.
A tall target man doesn’t necessarily mean route one football. There is one powerful front man with excellent close control and a good first touch who Fergie would sign in a heartbeat, given half a chance.
Unfortunately, Fernando Torres is not available.