After what felt like a lifetime of Alex Ferguson’s humourless and entrenched worldview and relentless successes, expressing positivity towards Man Utd had become a step too far for many otherwise fair minded fans. Poor David Moyes and his failure, so ably supported by a highly decorated and richly rewarded set of players reacting as if freed from oppressive tyranny, proxied the pent up desire of many to see them “knocked off their perch”.
So to 2014-15, and to some a reasonably blank slate and the entrance of a man who has quickly become everybody’s favourite continental uncle, Louis van Gaal. The English have long loved an eccentric and van Gaal was wise- or oblivious- enough to have absolutely no desire to blend in or moderate his methods or public persona. From tactical pamphlets to drunken violence upon Ryan Giggs we have seen the hand of a man comfortable in his own skin and content to do everything his way. Taking the helm at the World’s Largest Club was never going to faze him. Man Utd, a team renowned for speed, attacking flair and hunger, then proceeded to stumble into the transfer market like an inebriated jetlagged businessman handing over his credit card in a strip club. World class attackers like Di Maria showed a bit of leg, Falcao fluttered his eyelids and van Gaal ended up with an enviable array of gifted attackers to join established goal contributors such as Rooney, van Persie, Mata and Phil Jones.
Surely, with this exciting blend, it was a lock that Utd would thrill once more?
Franck Ribery: “I haven’t had fun on the pitch once under van Gaal. I had had more than enough of it”.
Yeah, Franck knew.
Styles and rates
Prescriptive and restrictive team football are the order of the day when Uncle Louis beds in. Despite a cavalcade of injuries early on, superficially at least, Man Utd’s league leading ability to prevent shots was impressive, but, and this was key, the shots that did get through were often potent, and the rate of shots on target to overall shots was notably high- 37%- enough to rank 5th worst from 120 club seasons in the Enlightened Era (2009-10 onwards). Here on Statsbomb, Dustin Ward noted that whilst Man Utd had a significant degree of midfield control via high pass volumes, they were vulnerable to longer passes that bypassed midfield and led to high quality shots converted at a high rate. Tottenham, another team that recorded high possession levels from a prescriptive tactical methodology, were similarly vulnerable. He also noted in a survey of the top five leagues in Europe:
Manchester United play the highest share of midfield backwards passes of any team (…) and [this] indicates a lack of forward options, a lack of aggression, or a tactic obsessed with keeping the ball.
To my mind, a freer desire to create shots has been replaced by somewhat sterile possession, control and a quest for certainty. The changes in shot contribution across the team between levels achieved under Moyes and those achieved during van Gaal’s tenure make for less than positive reading:
*I’ve focused on shot contribution rather than just shots as it gives a wider picture of player involvement. Split into the two inputs, both shot assists and shots are significantly more repeatable than their desired outputs, goals and assists, so they give us a well rounded view of total offensive contribution.
Chief amongst the takeaways from this chart is that the players that raised or maintained their shot contributions from 2013-14 appear to be departing, have departed or are unwanted. Falcao now resides at Chelsea, having been widely deemed a failure, van Persie has landed in Turkey, rumours are strong regarding the availability of Fellaini, if not the ability of other clubs to pay his wages, Januzaj has seemed to yet find favour and Di Maria- the one player with a verifiable top class 2014-15 shot contribution- is hightailing it across the channel tout suite.
The flip side to this is Rooney, parked bizarrely in midfield for parts of last season, yet now almost by default presumed to be the number one striker, is coming off the back of a pitiful contribution season when compared to former glories. He has played a lot of football over a now long career and this trend is becoming stronger by the year. The 2014-15 rate is under half his peak and although it’s too early to suggest his game is terminally in decline, that time is unlikely to be too many years away. Now seems an odd time to reformat him again as a pure striker, and for all that he is an ever-capable footballer, the heights of 20-25 goal seasons may well be beyond him. This is not to denigrate his class: considering a stellar and hugely consistent career backed up by top class numbers he has often received more criticism than has been warranted and i’ll be happy if proven wrong.
Witness Mata and Herrera, goalscoring heroes as last season wore on, yet powered by hilariously unsustainable conversion rates- eight goals from 12 shots on target for Mata, six from seven for Herrera who each dropped their contribution by over a shot a game. Again significant volume.
If we bat it up to team level it still looks largely unimpressive. van Gaal’s team shot at a similar rate to Moyes’ team (13.4 shots per game compared to 13.8), got a similar rate on target (~4.7 a-piece). Both seasons had shot ratios in the mid fifties, each converted all shots at around 12% whilst conceding at 10%. They scored a similar amount of goals: 64 for Moyes, 62 for van Gaal and by and large each team was significantly underpowered in comparison to the Ferguson era. The key to the door and the difference between backslapping at the awards dinner and a one way ticket to Spain was built by the rub of the green; van Gaal looks forward to the Champions League, another retooling of his squad and carries the aura of a new found love whilst Moyes remains a quickly discarded post-divorce notch on the bedpost.
None of this is to be unfair; the statistical malaise that now affects Man Utd has it’s basis deep in the embers of Ferguson’s era. As the chart shows, many of the key men from his teams remain, significantly past their best, and the vast outlay on new players has been a necessary rekindling. This summer seems less scatter-gun than before; Schweinsteiger, although aging and rarely free of injury, undoubtedly brings class and a knowledge of his coach’s ways whilst Schneiderlin looks like the kind of signing Ferguson used to like: a league-adjusted star player from a lesser team. Most exciting though, especially from a statistical bent is analytics darling and shot monster Memphis Depay.
A five shot a game outlier for the last two seasons in Holland, he rightly looks to have star potential and has been covered regularly on this site. Last season Ted Knutson highlighted him as a player most likely to break out into star level output going forward and whilst there is always a wonder about translating form shown in the Eredivisie across to a tougher league, he is a signing no fan should be disappointed with. It will certainly be interesting to see if van Gaal tempers the abandon with which Depay fires the ball goalward and represses his innate desires to act with freedom. The miniscule sample from the World Cup shows his shot rate at around three per 90 minutes and one suspects the higher degree of competition in the Premier League may find his shot rate fall somewhere between that and five. If he manages to mimic his Eredivisie rate, then Man Utd may have found a player to build a team around long term and there is a good deal of evidence to suggest he could become a genuine game-changer.
For the reasons discussed earlier, defensive reinforcements might have seemed to be the greatest needs. With Vidic and Ferdinand still fresh in the memory, the likes of Smalling, Jones and Evans still seem a step behind and Rojo and Shaw have yet to show form associated with their hefty fees. As yet, only the signing of Darmian, a full back, has contributed here. In fact, the apparent desire to spend vast sums on attacking talents and to overstock with flair players whilst ignoring more pressing needs is highly reminiscent of a late 1990s Inter Milan squad. Those teams always had box-office appeal but never translated their singular talents into collective triumph and tangible glory currently looks a step too far for this Utd team.
To the future
Bookmakers peg them as 4th favourites for the title but i’m content to state that last season’s top three are significantly ahead of where Man Utd are. Betting on successful transfers to remedy ailments is an unreliable gamble and the deficit between what van Gaal has put together and title contention is huge. Alex Ferguson averaged nearly 83 points per season in the 18 seasons played over 38 games prior to his retirement, Moyes got 64 and Van Gaal 70.
To expect a leap of ten, fifteen or even more points sufficient to compete for silverware based on the underlying statistics shown last season is beyond ambitious. Most likely, Man Utd’s grasp on the important fourth position will come under attack from whomever out of Liverpool, Tottenham or Southampton skews most positively from their base abilities. That they should be favourites amongst that little grouping is fair but it will be interesting if the perception of van Gaal is as positive in 12 months time if progression has not been attained. The Champions League returns and with it greater expectation of success. Even with an acceptance that Van Gaal should be able to fashion a more fruitful attack out of his many ingredients, it is still prudent to note that caution appears to be his prevailing outlook. Utd will still retain lots of the ball and look to minimise the effectiveness of their opposition but it’s hard to imagine that a team of such disparately acquired parts will either hit the ground running or not be vulnerable, certainly in comparison to their more stable rivals.
“But this is football!” I hear from the back of the room, “Anything could happen…”
In 2010-11, with the core of the team that carried them to two titles in three years, Man City posted 71 points and finished third, in a season underpowered by mediocre shot totals. In Mancini’s second summer of spending, Nasri and Aguero arrived and City increased their points total by 18 and won the league in the most dramatic fashion. So it’s not unprecedented to launch from a less than spectacular season, it’s just predicated on key transfers enhancing a side and hitting the ground running- for which there are no guarantees. For Utd fans raised on trophies, that battle and the unconventional stroll of 2012-13 are now a distant recollection and should that memory become further shrouded in mist and a battle for fourth represent the height of achievement, Aloysius Paulus Maria van Gaal’s tenure may not make it into it’s expected third of three years.
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