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This piece comes in two forms: the written piece here and the video below. If you feel less initiated into analytics, want me to expand on some points or want to watch me in my natural habitat, check it out:

Louis Van Gaal wasn’t always this conservative. Back in 1997-98 his Barcelona team won La Liga despite conceding 56, the 4th highest number of goals that season. In his one full season at Bayern Munich in 2009-10 they won the title with the most shots on target. The following year he coached them for the majority of a season in which they scored 81, the most any Bundesliga side had managed in 23 years and his two forays into the Dutch league at Ajax and AZ produced plenty of titles and goals.

His Manchester United side seem a little different. Shot monster Memphis is playing in a straitjacket, what remains of Wayne Rooney has scored only twice and renowned psychologist Paul Scholes noted that Martial “doesn’t look bothered”.  O, expansive-football-playing-Louis, where art thou?

Let’s start with the good news – Van Gaal is sucking any and all signs of attacking life out of opposition teams. 8.9 shots against p90 is bested only by City this season, whilst 3.4 shots on target against p90 is just 0.4 behind Liverpool.

Any reasons to think they could significantly cool off as the team to concede the least in the league are speculative – sure, 78.7 is a very high save percentage but City, Chelsea and United have all roughly managed it at times during the enlightened era. A more interesting point is just how much time United have spent winning this season and how little they concede once they get there.

Despite seemingly never shooting, United are second to City by just a minute in the amount of time they’ve spent winning this season. In particular they are spending a huge amount of time in the +1 game state, where save percentages tend to be a bit higher on average. And what’s their save percentage in that state? 86.7%, vs 68% rest-of-the-league average. When United go 1 up, they have been incredibly hard to score against. Who knows if that will sustain – perhaps they’re a ridiculously good defensive side or perhaps they will succumb to some fundamental mean. Either way, they’re currently conceding a ridiculously low number of goals when they go ahead.

SBgamestate

It’s not just shots and goals that Manchester United are avoiding conceding. They allow opponents the most passes in the opponent’s defensive third, but concede the least in both their own defensive third and the middle third.

SBpassconcede

While they are preventing the opposition from having any significant quantity of the ball at their end of the pitch, the possession they enjoy themselves is focused and prescriptive. That endless wide player > Carrick > other wide player passing pattern, as recently pointed out by your correspondent’s new mate Alan Shearer, makes their pass volume seem favourably high but, as Colin Trainor highlighted in this tweet, Manchester United’s game is characterised by perpetual rigidity:

Importantly, goals are a function of shots, not (directly) of passes. United are taking 10.3 shots per game (4th worst in the league), with just 3.8 being on target (=7th worst in the league) and while the endless passing is getting them into advanced positions, what they do with the ball when they get there has been less impressive. They’re still just 10th for goals scored in both Paul Riley and Michael Caley’s expected goals models. Their attack looks almost insultingly bad for a team challenging for top four:

SBs90

It’s not just United’s attack which lacks historical precedent. No team in the Premier League’s enlightened era has had a shots for/against profile even remotely similar to theirs. Can they continue to score from a few shots and then ride their save percentage to narrow wins? Stats me is tempted to say no, but the truth is that we simply have scarcely seen such low-event football before; United at 19.2 combined shots per game are 1.6 lower than any team in the Europe’s top five leagues.

Joke all you like about Wayne Rooney, but it is the face of this entire Manchester United side that looks like a monster. LVG could well be running a freaky experiment based on an iffy hypothesis. I haven’t got the authority to say it’s necessarily bad, but I cannot wait for the results. Will United finally start shooting more? Can this new experiment maintain 37% conversion rates and top-end save percentages? Can van Gaal’s madness overcome our methods? Have we become too blanketed, cappuccino in hand, to realise “what a load of nonsense” analytics really is?

Given the obvious and varied depth of talent available I’m not necessarily sure there is an attacking problem at United but, assuming there is, where is it stemming from: the system or its parts? The parts, bar Juan Mata, have all had their shots restricted this season. I think Van Gaal’s tactical conservatism is killing their numbers. When a system is so evidently limiting, it does make you wonder what the point of paying top-dollar for star individuals was…

Shotsp90UnitedPlayers

Rooney’s pattern jumps out and while he has played in varying positions, his goal, assist, shot, shot assist and key pass numbers have all been tanking since 2012, whilst the percentage of United’s league minutes he’s played has gone up every year over the same period. Already thirty, the ridiculous contract he’s on runs out in 2019. As each year passes and his contributions wane, it reminds us that this is a very clear example of how analytics can improve decision-making at the elite level. Purely from a common sense business perspective, something has to budge if United don’t want to pay Wayne’s corpse £300k p/w to jog about for the next 4 years. Taking a leaf from the Adebayor chapter of City’s book doesn’t look like the worst idea right now.

I find the interactions between ‘LVG-factor’, ‘upwards-sloping-age-curve’ and ‘better-league-factor’ intriguing in Depay and Martial’s shot numbers, but that’s for another day. What the above plots make clear to me is that there is something systematic moving those numbers down. It’s not simply position changes and it’s not just individuals dropping due to age or league effects.

Even under the pretty safe assumption that United get top 4 this season, is that enough? Will their international stars be happy giving up some of their best years to grind out 3rd? How long can the continental charm last if United don’t deliver a serious title challenge, something that surely can’t be possible from such a low base of shots?

In 2009 Louis Van Gaal reportedly lost up to a million pounds in the Bernie Madoff fraud, possibly forcing his big-money move to Bayern Munich a few months later. Hopefully his football can be lifted out of poverty with similar promptitude.

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  • Sharky

    Hey Joel really enjoy our videos on youtube and it’s nice to read an article by you on one of my favourite websites(statsbomb). I haven’t watched too much of Man Utd, but using statszone, and by following the likes of Paul Riley, Michael Caley on twitter, like you pointed out, shot numbers seems to be the biggest issue at Man Utd. from an offensive point of view. They seem to be converting at a very high rate, and this is exemplified by Martial. Martial has a 78% shot accuracy this season, and that for me is very unsustainable. His shots per 90 is also down from last season albeit this is probably because he lead the line for Monaco whereas he has been played out wide quite often at Utd. Coming to my point, if you look at LVGs MUFC in general, over both years, their shots inside the box have been very few. I haven’t checked recently, but I’m pretty sure that their passes per 90 in the box and their DZ completions are lower under LVG than Moyes, Fergie and not at top 4 level. This is odd considering the playmaking abilities of Mata(and Di Maria last season) as well as Martial’s ability to beat his man. Right now, I’d say the problem is a lack of a CF. I think of all the players MUFC can play up front(Rooney, Martial, Fellaini & Depay) and all of their best positions are elsewhere except maybe Martial. The problem with this is, it becomes very difficult to suppress a players positional instinct. Take Rooney for example, he was pretty much world class up front, he’s dropped deeper gradually over the seasons, and when told to play up front again, his movement is still very similar to a number 10. Hence, I feel someone like Martial playing up front is the best decision for them at least till January. Problem is, where does that leave Rooney? Having Mata play out wide kind of wastes his ability to get Man Utd to string some passes together in the final 3rd. In January, I think MUFC need to try and sign two players, it will be difficult to get them at the right price, so maybe it’s worth waiting till next summer. You mentioned Batshuayi, and I’d say he would be perfect. He has been prolific for OM this season and seemed to always get a goal when he came on last season. More importantly, he has the movement of a number 9, he will stay in and around the DZ and his finishing hasn’t disappointed yet. Another player I feel they need to sign is a a fast, creative wide player. I say this because it allows Mata to play centrally and probably Martial too. Options? Sane has been linked, and he’s been brilliant this season, Feghouli has also been linked and he would represent a cheap option(contract expiring in the summer) other options include Brahimi, Texeira if they want to take a gamble from a weaker league, or Boufal who could be available quite cheap and looks some talent. They’re lacking a bit of flair and desire at the moment as well as shot generation ability. Add the flair and the shot takers, and the goals should be back in. Defensively, I think you pointed out a lot of good points, and like you, I agree their current GA is unsustainable. The thing with Utd or rather LVGs style is, that it’s pretty much:- Have high possession, press high, man press but do not go gung ho- only allow own 3rd passes, block entry into your MUFC half, win the ball back, recycle, keep possession for a long time, take a shot after decades. It seems boring, but as you pointed out, it is probably only because MUFC are in a good game state most of the time. Do they have a second gear? It doesn’t seem like it, but they haven’t really been asked to show it yet. This style of theirs protects their defence in that their full backs in themselves aren’t the best going backwards, but with Smalling(cover) and Blind pushing up, with a combination of two midfielders(their real strength) they’re able to scupper opposition attacks quickly, or else force them to pass in their own 3rd for a bit while MUFC have a nice shape at the back. Yes, De Gea has saved them from time to time this season, but most shots in fairness have been fairly straight. As good a shot stopper as he is, I feel his number will dip soon.
    It’s interesting to see if they do get top 4, especially considering how well THFC & LFC are playing, but MUFC will definitely need to find another gear as these number won’t stay up.
    Was wondering if you would do a video on THFC, I’ve been very pleased with how we have improved defensively this season and wanted to know, what in your opinion has caused the improved numbers in terms of xGA this season

  • kidmugsy

    (i) How often have they fielded their three best passers (Carrick, Herrera & Mata) in the same game?
    (ii) If you adjusted the stats to allow for their playing with only ten men whenever they select Rooney, then how does their performance look?