Quick Reads

Andrei Kanchelskis epitomised Man United’s tactics in the early years of the Premier League

Signed in 1991 from Shakhtar Donetsk for a fee worth £650,000, Andrei Kanchelskis was Manchester United’s first out and out right-winger since Steve Coppell who had retired eight-years earlier; Gordan Strachan, for example, was more so a wide midfielder who drifted into the centre, whilst under Sir Alex Ferguson, Mike Phelan was a midfielder sometimes deployed out wide to provide balance; Phelan started on the right of midfield in United’s Cup Winners Cup victory in 1991 against Barcelona to offer positional cover for Brian McClair.

What is interesting is that following Steve Coppell’s career ending early due to injury, Manchester United did not start an out and out right-winger on a regular basis until the signing of Kanchelskis. Gordan Strachan, signed by Ron Atkinson from Aberdeen (then managed by Ferguson), played as a wide-midfielder, and it may have been odd at the time to see Bryan Robson and not the right-sided player sporting the #7 shirt – Strachan typically wore #8.

Kanchelskis was a winger who could dribble past the full-back one-on-one, but what it was his pace that was perhaps his greatest asset. Kanchelskis was very quick. There were three prime wingers for Manchester United in the early years of the Premier League; Kanchelskis, Lee Sharpe and Ryan Giggs. Kanchelskis’ approach to wing-play was very direct, and perfect for counter-attacking football.

Sir Alex Ferguson is noted for having adapted tactically over time, and in doing so managed sides over the years with different approaches, and the side with Kanchelskis was one that played mainly on the counter-attack. Kanchelskis used his pace to good effect, making runs from the right-hand side to be fed balls from midfield after United regained the ball from opposition attacks, with one example being what led to the penalty awarded to United in the 1994 FA Cup final. Kanchelskis’ runs off of the ball were helped greatly by how quick he was, being able to evade being offside and meet well-timed passes in behind the defence.

Some counter-attacking manoeuvres even started all the way from goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel. Schmeichel was renowned for the distances he could reach with his throws, and counter-attacks sometimes began with Schmeichel throwing the ball out to Kanchelskis on the right, who would then carry the ball forward and cross or pass into Mark Hughes, for example. In a tight 2-3 victory against Queens Park Rangers, United’s opening goal scored by Kanchelskis was created by a long throw from Schmeichel, who set-up the winger in a great amount of space to run into, before slotting the ball home in the box.

Kanchelskis was adept with both feet, as made clear against Oldham Athletic in the 1994 FA Cup semi-final, when after receiving the ball from Paul Ince, Kanchelskis galloped from one flank to the other, before shooting with his weaker left-foot into the top left-hand corner. Commentator John Motson described the goal as a “personal crusade”. Comfortable shooting either making a run from the right-side into the penalty-area or drifting inside with the ball, Kanchelskis had different routes to getting in on the goals, and one method was a diagonal ball from the left to meet the on running Kanchelskis on the opposite flank who in space who dart into the box to shoot.

It is also worth noting that Kanchelskis had a particularly hard shot. This meant Kanchelskis was a goal threat (Kanchelskis scored 36 goals for United, and in two of the four full seasons with United, Kanchelskis reached double figures in goals) and what made Kanchelskis, Giggs and Sharpe standout as wingers in the Premier League in the early 1990s was how they reached double figures in goals. In the 1993-94 season, each scored 10, 17 and 11 goals in all competitions respectively.

And when Eric Cantona received a hefty ban from playing football for nine months following *that* kick on a Crystal Palace supporter in the following season, Kanchelskis stepped up a level in this regard, finishing as United’s top scorer in the League with 14 goals. Although, Cantona’s ban proved even more damning as United succumbed the League title to Blackburn Rovers, and the FA Cup to Everton.

United’s wingers also contradicted the same foot/flank flying winger type typical of English football prior to the establishment of the Premier League, to an extent, as although starting on the flanks aligned with their foot, Kanchelskis and Giggs did at times alternate flanks when the opposition were a match for United’s attacks. One goal against Leeds United in the opening Premier League campaign oversaw Kanchelskis header in an outside of the foot cross from Giggs on the right after both switched sides. This period side could be compared to United’s League and Championship League winning side of 2008 in how counter-attacks were at the forefront, there were goal scorers from different areas of the pitch, and how in some cases players alternated positions to outwit opposition markers.