Ethan Laird; a future right-back for Manchester United
Many top-level managers across the world have expressly modified their tactical systems to better suit attacking fullbacks, with coaches aiming to give them less defensive duties so that they can consistently influence attacks.
Ethan Laird, the Manchester United academy graduate – now on loan at Swansea City, ticks all the right boxes as a top fullback for the future. The 20-year-old is lauded by United’s academy coaches, and he spoke to The Athletic about his aspirations to reach the top with the club. He appears to be doing the right things based on what we’ve seen so far.
Role in Swansea’s setup
When Russell Martin was still coaching MK Dons in League One, he signed Laird on loan. Martin was able to re-sign the promising fullback after taking over as manager of Swansea. We’ll soon learn why the 35-year-old manager thinks very highly of Laird.
The 3-4-3 is Martin’s current formation at Swansea, with Laird playing as a right wing-back. He is mostly responsible for creating chances and stretching play rather than being overly defensive.
Swansea is a team that thrives on keeping hold of the ball. They have the highest ball possession percentage in the Championship, at 64.7%. Martin prioritizes ball retention, and they’re pretty good at it, averaging 500 passes per game with an accuracy rate of 84.6%. The manager appears to have given Laird a lot of freedom to influence attacks in the final third, almost like a traditional winger, attacking the byline but rarely cutting inside with the ball.
While combining with the wide midfielders, he is tasked with stretching the pitch as wide as possible on the right flank, forcing the opposition backline to play a lot more cautiously.
So far this season, Laird has assisted in 3 goals while making 1.4 key passes per game and creating 25 chances in 16 outings. His assist totals and his key passes alone rank him as the team’s second most creative player. In the Championship, his 23 key passes place him third among wide players.
He’s a talented dribbler. He makes 2.2 successful dribbles per game on average in the Championship, completing about 50% of his attempts. James Paterson, 29, is the closest player to him in dribble completions, with an average of 1.4. Shoulder drops, quick changes of pace, and crosses with either foot are all part of his array of skills. He is extremely direct, which is why he gets so many fouls. He draws 2.5 fouls a game, trailing just Ryan Manning, who gets 2.9.
He is always looking to make forward runs which usually drags the opposition Central midfielders out of position to track him, leaving enormous gaps for his teammates to exploit.
Of course, when he’s left alone with the ball, he’s at his most razor-sharp. In the Championship, 22 of his 23 key passes are short, reinforcing the notion that he prefers to get as near to the 18-yard box as possible before making the final pass. He is the only wide player in the league who has created 99% of his chances with short passes thus far. Every time he has the ball, the youngster backs himself to take on his opponent.
Laird also offers himself as a passing option when the opposition press high. As a forward player drops deep to play him in from a one-touch pass, he opens himself up in the wide regions, putting him in a 1v1 scenario with a fullback or advancing defender. Laird then has the option of taking on his opponent or playing in the striker.
His offensive prowess is a significant part of his game. With the freedom to charge forward, he can quickly move the ball into tight spaces, where other players would usually lose possession.
Playing with a back three does afford a team some added degree of defensive solidity while allowing the wide players to focus more on attacking rather than defending. However, this does not imply that Laird is inept in defense. There is a very uncommon combination of attacking and defending when it comes to fullbacks, but the signs are quite good with the Laird.
Surprisingly, he’s an excellent tackler. He averages 1.5 tackles per game, winning 24 in 28 attempts, second only to Ryan Manning on the team, who averages 1.6. He has only been dribbled past 4 times in the league this season, which is noteworthy because he appears to be more conservative and does not rush into tackles, which is likely why he has only given up 11 fouls all season. Across all competitions, the 20-year-old has an 87% tackle success rate.
Martin’s structure relies heavily on the players’ off-the-ball work. Laird appears to be honing his sense of positioning but seems to have already figured out how to press intelligently by blocking passing lanes, which is particularly useful when Swansea are on the back foot.
When the squad has to defend against counterattacks, being so high up the pitch would be a challenge for many fullbacks. For Laird, it doesn’t appear to be a significant issue. He has the speed to get back just in time. He’s usually in the right place, which means he rarely gets completely blindsided by a runner.
Ethan Laird has a lot of room for improvement, but I can’t help but think he’s just a Premier League loan away from being a legitimate right-back option for Manchester United. His forward runs, directness, and ability to stay disciplined just when needed are all pillars on which he can build a long and successful career.