When Blackburn Rovers travelled to Old Trafford on New Year’s Eve few would have predicted anything other than a routine home victory for Manchester United. Rovers were at the foot of the table, five points adrift of safety, while United had reined in neighbours Manchester City on Boxing Day with a 5-0 win against Wigan. With City not due to play again until the New Year, United would have been confident of seeing 2012 in as league leaders while Blackburn were just looking to put a year to forget behind them.
A Yakubu brace and a late Grant Hanley header in a resolute performance – befitting of the time of year – sparked a run of form which has seen Blackburn accumulate 17 points in their last 12 games; a remarkable turnaround having picking up just 11 points in their first 18 matches of the season.
Three months on and the trip to Ewood Park is being touted as United’s toughest test in their title run-in, but is this claim a step too far? While Rovers are in as healthy a position as they have been all season, 16th placed sides rarely present cause for trepidation among title-chasing teams. After all, Blackburn’s primary concern remains avoiding the drop to the Championship, while United’s is regaining the championship.
A look at the Opta statistics for the season so far paints a clearer picture of the likely outcome of the match on Monday night.
If there is one certainty for the match it is that United will dominate possession. In the last seven meetings of the two sides in the league, since the start of the 2008/09 season, Rovers have averaged just 34% possession, peaking at a high of just 39% back in October 2008. This term only Manchester City, Swansea City and Arsenal have completed more passes than United, while only Stoke City have completed fewer than Blackburn. United’s 14,082 passes completed almost doubles Rovers’ 7,860 at a considerably more accurate 81.7% pass completion rate, compared to Blackburn’s 68.8%.
On an individual level the story is much the same. Considering both sides’ players to have attempted at least 200 passes, Blackburn’s most accurate passer is Steven N’Zonzi who has a pass completion rate of 83%. This is a commendable passing accuracy, but United could field a whole side of more accurate passers, possessing 14 players who average 84% or higher, with Paul Scholes leading the way on 91%.
Threat from the wings
United have a league high 11 assists from set pieces – unsurprisingly a tally matched only by Stoke – while Blackburn’s nine assists from dead ball situations constitutes to 35% of their assists, a proportion only bettered by Stoke – again, unsurprisingly – and Bolton Wanderers. This points to a threat from the flanks which could decide the outcome of Monday night’s contest.
Antonio Valencia and Junior Hoilett are arguably two of the league’s most in-form players, with Valencia returning from injury against Wolves with a goal and two assists, while Hoilett has netted three in his last three outings. While Hoilett’s run of form has coincided with his switch to a more central role (a move advocated back in early October), both players can undoubtedly cause damage in the wide areas.
Valencia has now provided 11 assists in 2011/12 from his right midfield berth, second only behind David Silva, despite starting nine fewer matches than the Spaniard and featuring in just 1,479 minutes of Premier League action compared to Silva’s 2,284 minutes. Meanwhile, Hoilett has embarked on more dribbles than any player in the league with the exception of Wigan’s Victor Moses. Of his 159 dribbles attempted though, Hoilett has successfully completed 75, a league high, eclipsing Moses who has completed 72 of 164 runs.
More on Page 2: Chance Conversion…
Manchester United have a formidable record in front of goal that will test Blackburn’s new found defensive resolve that has brought two clean sheets in their last three outings. United’s finishing is nothing if not ruthless, with the league’s highest number of goals scored (74), the most shots on target (197), the highest shooting accuracy (54.4%) and the highest chance conversion rate (20.4%).
This set of statistics is a frightening prospect for a side who have conceded more goals than any other side in the league, with the exception of Wolves who have now conceded three more than Rovers following their 5-0 drubbing at the hands of… Manchester United. Add in an in-form Wayne Rooney who has netted eight league goals in United’s last seven league matches and the challenge Blackburn must face becomes all the more daunting.
However, Blackburn are no slouches in front of goal themselves, having only been outscored by the league’s top six, and in Yakubu have a player who has excelled with the goal at his mercy since signing last summer. Yakubu scored his fourteenth goal of the season against Sunderland, making him the fifth most prolific striker in the top flight. His chance conversion rate of 31% is the highest among those to find the back of the net on ten or more occasions, while only Ivan Klasnic (with 33% and eight goals) and, interestingly, United outcast Dimitar Berbatov (with a staggering 47% and seven goals) are more clinical with their chance conversion among players to have scored over five goals.
On balance, the statistics point comprehensively towards a victory for the visitors. Then again, they did prior to the sides’ previous encounter when an out of sorts Blackburn side turned around their season with their first league win at Old Trafford since a Morten Gamst Pedersen brace clinched a 2-1 win in September 2005.
While the latest statistics are on United’s side, it is worth noting the recent head-to-head record at Ewood Park in the Premier League. Since Blackburn’s return to the top flight in 2001/02, United have only left Blackburn with all three points on two occasions. A return of two wins in ten is far from a startling record and adds weight to the argument that United’s visit to Ewood Park may yet represent one of United’s biggest challenges between now and 13 May.
All of the stats from this article have been taken from the Opta Stats Centre at EPLIndex.com – Subscribe Now (Includes author privileges!) See Demo’s and videos about the Stats Centre & read about new additions to the stats centre.