As we just did with Liverpool, this post is an examination of the state of Manchester United after 19 matches. For Manchester United this has been another season of slow starts, well, relatively speaking, and coming on strong at Christmas. An uncharacteristic loss to Blackburn notwithstanding, this is a Red Devils side that looks poised to push Manchester City to the finish and make this a two horse race in the spring. For United it has already been a long season, having been unceremoniously exited from the Champions League and faced with a never-ending parade of injuries to the back line. However, they sit just three points behind League leaders City, and with a game in hand. Sir Alex will know that it is every other manager in the Premier League that envies his position and that each other club will be looking to knock United from their place atop the table.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This post was largely written before the NUFC 3-0 MUFC match on Wednesday. However, getting all of the stats and graphics together precluded our posting it prior to the match. Given the result, we’ve added a few paragraphs and a couple of additional statistics from that match. However, all stats in the info-graphics are for the first 19 matches of the season and do not include the 4 January fixture.
The season started on a record setting pace for Wayne Rooney. This author wrote Wayne Rooney: Scoring Efficiently on 14/9 of this season and, while Rooney’s pace his slowed, United have continued to earn the full 3 points more often than not. With his reported recent omission due to Boxing Day festivities, the rest of the squad will hope their mercurial striker is able to stay on the field and in their managers good graces. With all due respect to Will Keane and his 6′ against Blackburn, United have four options to lead the line – Rooney being the best of a top class bunch.
Ferguson has four scoring threats that are each taking their chances at a better than 20% rate. Across the front line, then, it is four chances to a goal – an excellent ratio. Wayne Rooney is also the best of the quartet at creating chances. This was illustrated in his midfield stint earlier this season. Also important is that United are able to consistently generate shots. Their overall accuracy and ability to convert chances to goals have resulted in about 2.5 goals per game.
NOTE: In the 0-3 match at “Sports Direct Arena”, United attempted just 6 shots and only 3 on target. Rooney played 75′. In a typical match he could have been expected to take between 3-4 shots. While this is a very small sample, it is important to note that only Rooney and Nani managed shots on target, forcing just three saves from Tim Krul. United had taken 330 shots in the first 19 matches, with 125 finding the target as the squad scored 47 goals. In an average match this season United would have taken as many as 17 shots, with more than 6 finding the target. United had also average 2.47 goals per match.
While the front line has suffered from the injuries to Chicharito, Welbeck and Owen, the midfield of United has been in flux for most of the season. With the arrival of Ashley Young and the emergence of Tom Cleverley and Anderson as first choice center pairing, the squad looked to be getting younger. A new generation was being introduced to the Premier League and Sir Alex was earning plaudits for creating another youth movement at United. Unfortunately, injuries have also derailed several successful campaigns in the midfield.
Nani has been discussed here, compared to David Silva here, and Michael Carrick’s season was dissected here, but it has been the play of four other midfielders that have dictated United’s successes this season. In Tom Cleverley, Anderson, Antonio Valencia and Ryan Giggs, Ferguson has four options to slot into a midfield that already includes Nani, Carrick and, when healthy, Ashley Young. The depth of the squad is unsurprising – a hallmark of a Ferguson squad. However, the early emergence of Cleverley and Anderson as first choice pairing, the impressive form of the ageless Giggs, and the recent late run of Antonio Valencia have given United a plethora of outstanding options.
Ferguson’s midfield also boasts the versatile Ji-Sung Park. In 664′ he has been solid if unspectacular. His two goals and one assist have not been in close matches this season, the two goals coming in the 8-2 romp over Arsenal and the 5-0 victory over Wigan. While Park’s contributions are largely unheralded, those of Giggs and Valencia have rightly caught the headlines. With 12 assists between them, and in just 1311′, the combination of Giggs/Valencia would be on pace to generate more than 25 assist in an average season of 2800′. Those assists have also been timely, with Valencia’s recent run of five matches on the trot with an assist or more coinciding with United’s 4-0-1 run. Giggs 5 assist have all come in United wins as well. Of particular note this season have been the midfielders ability to win tackles and duels. In part because they’re unable to win more than 50% of their challenges, the midfield is not providing enough cover and they’re contributing to the very high number of chances allowed.
The United defensive line has been written about before by this author. You can read our early season thoughts on Evans, Jones and Smalling here. With a number of key injuries including the season ending injury to Vidic, discussed by this author here, the backline has undergone several transformations. However, the defense had remained consistent through the first 18 matches with the 3-2 loss to Blackburn in match 19 showing cracks in the facade that would be exploited efficiently by Newcastle in match 20.
Vidic had been a rock in his time this season, winning 76% of his ground duels and 75% of his aerial duels. At 67% win on ground duels and 69% win aerial duels it is Rio Ferdinand who provides the second best cover on the back line. Evans is also injured at the moment, and having won just 63% of ground duels, though Evans is better in the air with 73% win on his 26 aerial duels. Evans and Jones also only win 71% of their tackles, with Evans attempting just 14 tackles while Jones has attempted 34.
The larger problem is the injuries, but an equally pressing concern will be finding a long term replacement for Patrice Evra who is not playing well enough to keep a place in a title winning back line. Evra’s numbers are poor by his own standards, attempting 87 clearances, but successfully clearing the ball only 43 time (49%). He is also winning few of his challenges. Patrice has won 56% of his ground duels. Evra has won a team best 111 ground duels but he has attempted 198 through 19 matches. He also leads the team with 42 aerial challenges attempted but has won only 48%. The club as a whole are winning more than 50% of all challenges and 75% of their tackles. One positive note, Evra has won 79% of his 48 tackles, leading the club in both tackles attempted and tackles won.
Despite the inconsistency of names on the squad sheets, the Old Trafford faithful have been able to count on assured performances and positive results – highlighted by United’s string of five EPL fixtures where they allowed a single goal (to Newcastle in a 1-1 draw) and won four of five 1-0. The backline wasn’t the only defensive change in those five matches as David de Gea posted two of the clean sheets while Anders Lindergaard posted the other two.
The fact that Sir Alex has two ‘keepers of this caliber to call upon certainly creates an advantage. While it is unfair to compare their stat lines given the disparity in opposition faced, it is worth noting that Lindegaard has actually made more saves per match, averaging a save every 56:15′ compared to de Gea’s 60’. De Gea has also committed a defensive error – just one by Opta Stats though many United supporters would disagree – while Lindegaard has not committed one. Ad the season wears on, and there are fewer points left to be won, it will be interesting to see where the trust lies. Certainly both ‘keepers are playing at a very high level in the Premier League this season but it has been Lindegaard, and not de Gea, who has been the heir to van der Saar’s gloves this season.
NOTE: On 4 January Anders Lindegaard suffered his worst match of the season, allowing three goals in a 0-3 loss to Newcastle at St. James. Certainly not his best match and should once more open the debate as to who should be between the sticks for United. He did make three saves as United conceded 11 chances – 5 inside the box and 6 outside. This season United had conceded 280 (evenly split 140 inside to 140 outside) or 14.7 per game.
In looking at the Opta Stats as a whole, it becomes clear that United have the necessary skill in attack. However, as the Red Devils move forward it will be important that they’re able to work to limit chances and provide better cover for their goalkeeper regardless of who is between the sticks.