Last week Manchester United sat alone at the top of the league for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. Despite flattering to deceive at times this season in terms of performances, United topped the table after seven matches having dropped only five points all season. For the moment, Louis Van Gaal’s red and white army is flying high.
As great as being top of the league is, it’s not about being top in October, it’s about being there in May. The season is still in its infancy, so the real questions are, can Manchester United improve and can they retake top spot and be up there when the season ends.
In short, the answer to the first question is yes they can improve. Whilst they were top of the league, United have had quite a few performances where they have struggled to create chances. One metric that shows their needed improvement is expected goals or xG. Expected goals is a metric created by Michael Caley to measure the quality of chances created and conceded. It has been proven to be a better indicator of future results than current points, as it can account for a hot or cold streak of finishing for or against. If you want to learn more about expected goals click here, but United’s performance in expected goals has been good not great. The schedule adjusted xG has United as the fourth best team in the league so far. Not bad, but they can definitely improve.
One way Louis Van Gaal’s side can improve is to keep Anthony Martial involved. The 19 year old has had an incredible start to the season with three goals from only five shots in the Premier League. While a ratio like that is completely unsustainable, he has also brought something different to the team. Since he has come in, the team has performed at a much higher level and has been able to create chances much more consistently. In the four Premier League games prior to the purchase of Martial, United had scored three goals and conceded two goals. In the three Premier League games he has featured in, they have scored nine and conceded three.
Coming back to expected goals, the xG backs this perception up. In the first four matches, Manchester United created 3.7 expected goals and allowed 2.5 expected goals against. In their last three, they’ve created 4.7 expected goals and allowed 2.8 expected goals. Granted, three games is a very small sample size, but so far Martial has come in and had a very positive impact.
Can Manchester United finish the season as champions? Stats say that they will need to improve to do so, but it is certainly possible. Their improvement since Martial has come in is promising, and they so seem to have fixed the defensive issues that haunted them last season. Not too many people picked United as champions going into this season, but they do look like they could at least make a run at the championship. Their finishing will eventually regress to the mean (scoring 12 goals from 8.4 expected goals doesn’t exactly scream sustainable), but if they can continue to improve their creative output, it may not matter.
United have got off to a strong start to the season, but there is a lot of room for improvement. They’ve played only one team from the current top eight so far, and will have their first match against a top four opponent this weekend when they travel to the Emirates to face Arsenal. If the leaders are able to come away with a convincing win, it would put down a marker saying that they are in this title race for the long run.