When Manchester United conceded the title to their neighbors at the end of last season everyone expected the type of vicious response Alex Ferguson is known for. Throughout his tenure Blackburn, Arsenal and Chelsea have repeatedly threatened to derail the dynasty he’s tried to create and the Scot has fought them all.
So United did spend this summer, and spend big. £27m on Robin Van Persie and £14m on the Bundesliga’s player of the year Shinji Kagawa. All these purchases were geared to making United’s offense, already featuring players such as Wayne Rooney and Antonio Valencia, one to be feared. In Ferguson’s own words,
[quote]”Last year we lost on goal difference and I don’t expect us to lose on goal difference again. I think Robin may make that difference.”[/quote]
Jonny Evans has also spoken about goal difference, saying how important it is that United score as many as possible in every game. With good reason. Currently United have a razor-thin lead at the top of the table, and goal difference may become important again. However what United’s staff might have forgotten was that a great goal difference can be achieved through conceding less as well as scoring more.
With United’s defenders constantly undergoing fitness issues, especially key men such as Nemanja Vidic, and their central midfield aging, the areas crying out for reinforcement were not the ones filled during the summer splurge. In fact Alex Ferguson may have tried to fix a problem that wasn’t there to begin with. United scored 89 goals last year at a rate of 2.34 per game, a stat that hasn’t improved majorly this season. United are scoring 2.35 goals a game currently, despite the addition of such expensive offensive players. (Although Kagawa hasn’t featured in the Premiership since October.)
Meanwhile, their defense has slipped considerably. Last season United conceded an average of 0.87 goals per game, even after such anomalous results as the 6-1 defeat to Manchester City. This season that figure is up to 1.29. Their minutes per defensive error statistic has dropped from 224 to 148.
The Red Devils have kept only three clean sheets in the Premier League, and none against a side that would be considered challengers for the title. If extrapolated over an entire season Manchester United’s goal difference would be around 40, last season it was 56.
The reason United’s defensive frailties haven’t hurt more is the astonishing amount of comebacks the Manchester side has managed. Six games won from losing positions this season alone is astounding, even for a side with a reputation for the unexpected. That is simply unsustainable and a huge worry for Ferguson, who has often mentioned in his press conferences the need to stop conceding the first goal. United’s record speaks to their style of play, throwing caution to the wind. They haven’t drawn a single Premiership game this season, either winning or going down in a blaze of glory.
Contrastingly Manchester City, again United’s main title rivals, have nine wins and five draws, but are unbeaten in the league heading into a hard December schedule containing games against Dortmund, United, Everton and Newcastle. The Blue half of Manchester haven’t been at their best but Roberto Mancini has somehow managed to ensure that they pick up at least a point a game to keep their confidence up.
So how have United been conceding their goals, and are the concessions because of the change of shape required to field as many attacking players as possible? Some stats comparing this season and last season may provide the answer.
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From the data above it is clear that United have adopted more of a possession based style of play, encapsulated by Ferguson’s new midfield of two passers (Cleverley, Carrick, or Scholes) and one of the forwards dropping deep to help out (usually Rooney). For example against West Ham midweek Ferguson moved away from his preferred 4-4-1-1 into an unusual 4-3-1-2, with Cleverley, Carrick and Rooney all looking to move towards the middle of the field. United were extremely narrow, which was strange for a side renowned for their use of tricky wide players, but kept the ball and probed the opposition.
To counter United’s prowess with the ball their opponents have defended extremely deep and looked to prosper on the break with balls pumped into the box. The evidence of this is in the increased amount of Aerial 50/50s coming United’s way this season. Missing their best penalty box defenders in Nemanja Vidic and Phil Jones means United are also more susceptible to this method of attack. At times this season both Michael Carrick and Jonny Evans have partnered Rio Ferdinand in defense, neither of whom are overly physical players. Carrick in particular was manhandled by Marouane Fellaini in United’s opening fixture, where they conceded off a corner. Increased defensive investment over the summer by Alex Ferguson may have mitigated this weakness.
After being comprehensively beaten by Barcelona’s possession based football in two Champions League finals and losing the Premier League title to Manchester City it’s obvious that Alex Ferguson has attempted to institute a more fluid style of play at Manchester United. However as brilliant as they look going forward this new approach seems to leave them particularly vulnerable to the most basic of attacks. It is telling that United have looked more comfortable this season against suave sides such as Arsenal than against rugged teams like Stoke and Norwich. Manchester United have done well to avoid letting their defensive mishaps punish them thus far but need to tighten up in order to win the title.
All of the stats from this article have been taken from the Opta Stats Centre at EPLIndex.com – Subscribe Now (Includes author privileges!) Check out our new Top Stats feature on the Stats Centre which allows you to compare all players in the league & read about new additions to the stats centre.