EPL Season Preview 2014-15: Manchester United
I first started reading about and closely following football analytics at the start of the 2012-13 season. Throughout that season, the main narrative in the mainstream media was how much better Manchester United were than every other team in the league and how they ran away with the title. In analytics circles, the story was almost completely flipped - How is a team with only the eighth best shot ratio in the league so far ahead of everyone else?
Looking back on that season we see that United’s shot locations tended to be significantly better than their opponents and they relied an an unsustainable, high conversion rate. So even if 2013-14 had been a regular season, the analytics crowd would have been apprehensive as to whether United could repeat their results from the previous season. Of course the following season was not a regular season, it was the first in twenty-six years where Manchester United were not managed by Sir Alex Ferguson.
2013-14 League Finish: 7th (64 points)
Goal Difference Rank: 6th (+21)
TSR Rank: 8th (0.538)
PDO Rank: 4th (1059)
Not unlike the final season under Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013-14 by all of the basic metrics United looked like a mid table team. The only difference was this time they actually finished mid table.
Even the shot position charts look very average, with United only slightly above league average in both attack and defence, which corresponds to what we’d expect from a seventh place team.
Looking ahead to this upcoming season under another new manager in Louis Van Gaal, it is important to compare these past two seasons in order to predict what kind of United team we will see in 2014-15.
It is really hard to isolate the effect a manager has on a team. We can say pretty conclusively Sir Alex Ferguson is a better manager than David Moyes, and that Moyes had a negative influence on the team in 2013-14. The question is how do we separate the underlying capabilities of the team versus their poor performance under an inferior manager?
In 2012-13, some pointed to the influence of Sir Alex Ferguson in how the team managed to win the title despite not dominating their opponents as we’d expect a title winning team to do. This hypothesis stands up pretty well when we compare whatever Sir Alex’s magic touch was with Moyes whose team had similar shot numbers in the following season but very different results.
The problem is we obviously can’t run the counterfactual to see how Sir Alex does with Moyes’s team in 2013-14. We cannot see how much of the drop from 89 to 64 points is attributable to the manager. Some of it might just be simple regression to the mean, some might be attributable to an aging squad with several holes in both midfield and defence. It is probably a mixture of all of these things, which brings us back to Louis Van Gaal and the current squad.
Louis Van Gaal is undoubtedly a very good manager. Almost everyone in the game speaks highly of him and he has achieved success at every club he’s been at. Despite not being able to fully isolate for a manager’s influence, I think it is safe to say that Van Gaal is a better manager than David Moyes and will produce better results.
Essentially the results of Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson and David Moyes with similar squads and similar underlying performances suggest that the change of manager had a significant effect and another change of manager to one vastly more qualified than Moyes should also have an effect.
With the transfer window still open and new rumours popping up daily (it really would be easier for all of us if the transfer window ended before the season begins) it’s hard to say conclusively what Manchester United’s squad will look like on September 1st. That said, the club has already been very active this summer making moves in three key areas: central midfield, left back and centre back.
United’s midfield has been much maligned since around the 2008-09 season when Darren Fletcher was at the top of his game and Anderson was still considered a promising option. To few people’s surprise (maybe other than David Moyes himself), the 28 million pound signing of Marouane Fellaini did little to address these issues.
Ander Herrera is a very different player to Fellaini, one whose natural position is a box-to-box central midfielder as opposed to the more attacking midfield role that Fellaini was operating in at Everton. At Athletic Bilbao, Herrara posted high key pass, through ball and tackle numbers - all areas in which the United midfield has been sorely lacking. As of the writing of this piece, Herrara is the one true clear and immediate upgrade in terms of United acquisitions this summer.
The second area United has made a big move is at left back with the signing of Luke Shaw from Southampton and the sale of Patrice Evra to Juventus.
Looking at these two radars, Shaw and Evra actually look like pretty similar players with the one exception of dribbling where Shaw is much more forward thinking, but accordingly gets dispossessed more often. The dribbling aspect may actually be more suited to Van Gaal’s new system in which Shaw will most likely be playing as a wing-back in a 3-5-2. Comparing these numbers, it seems that Shaw is less of an upgrade over Evra today, as opposed to someone who United believe will develop into a more talented fullback in the future whereas Evra is a player in decline. However, Evra's numbers are probably boosted a bit by the fact that Moyes used a system heavily reliant on left back attacks.
The final area where United have made significant moves this summer has been at centre back with the exits of both Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. These are two players who have gone through a fair share of struggles at the back over the past few years, but were still important pieces in United’s back line. The club is now down to only three natural centre backs who played any minutes last year: Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, and Jonny Evans. All of these players have had injury concerns over the past few seasons as well. Given that Van Gaal will be playing with a system that requires three centre backs, it looks like acquiring another centre back before the transfer window closes will be crucial to the team’s success this year.
Youth Team Prospects
Van Gaal has a history of bringing through successful youth team players at every other club he’s been at. Luckily for him, the current crop at United looks promising.
With the aforementioned depth issues at centre back Van Gaal will have to be willing to give a couple youth team players a shot, the most significant of them being twenty-year-old Tyler Blackett. Blackett played a significant role on the team’s pre-season tour and slotted in nicely at the back. Expect Blackett to get a decent amount of playing time this season if United aren’t able to add any more centre backs in the mean time.
Another big name who already made a splash on loan scoring 10 goals in the Championship last season is attacking midfielder Jesse Lingard. Lingard was part of the pre-season tour squad under Moyes and again under Van Gaal this season, and has looked to be a real threat going forward. Whether or not Lingard is sent out on loan again this season probably comes down to whether or not United sign another central midfield.
The prospect United fans seem most excited about is James Wilson. Wilson scored two goals last season in his only Premier League appearance coming in a dead rubber against Hull City. He has also impressed at every level in the United youth teams, scoring last season for each of the U-18s, U-21s and reserves. Recently in the Manchester Senior Cup Final, he scored four goals against Manchester City on route to a 4-1 win. With Rooney, Van Persie, Welbeck and Chicharito all fighting for roles up top in Van Gaal’s team, it may be the young James Wilson who forces the sale of the out of favour Chicharito as he moves up in the pecking order.
Comparing United of 2013-14 to the current United team, there are a few major differences: they have a significantly better coach, they are stronger in central midfield, they have less depth at centre back, and they have several prospects who look ready to make the jump to the first team.
This piece has only really looked at what is different going into the upcoming season, but there are a lot of questions about the players already at the club. For example:
- Can Wayne Rooney continue producing at the same level? (Some of his chance creation numbers have proven to be very repeatable over the years so the evidence would suggest he can.)
- Will Robin Van Persie stay fit?
- Will Michael Carrick return to his 2011-13 form?
- Will Ashley Young thrive in a 3-5-2 as he has done in preseason?
There are a lot more unknowns about this team than just the changes outlined above, but it is these changes that will attract the most scrutiny and will probably have the biggest impact on the season.
I think looking at these changes, it’s hard not to see United as an improved team. Not one ready to challenge the best teams at the top in Manchester City and Chelsea, but certainly in with a shout at competing for a Champions League spot with Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham.
Publicly the club may boast about jumping right back into a title race, but privately I’m sure the club would be very happy with returning to the Champions League next year and I think that is probably around where they will finish.