In a league that holds intrigue at every turn, Manchester United’s prospects are at least as enticing as any other. After three post Ferguson seasons of wild spending but dull football, they’ve finally thrown their keys in the middle of the table, disrobed and invited everyone to join them in the master bedroom.
- Celebrity rent-a-quote manager? Check
- Celebrity rent-a-quote iconic forward? Check
- Prime age creative talent? Check
They get the message. You’re the biggest club in the world? Then you need to get noticed, you need visible stars and you need people to talk about you. Suddenly we look like we might have a touch more fun on the red side of Manchester, even allowing for Jose Mourinho’s propensity to turn big games into mud, and the tough question to answer is whether this play for attention has enough structure beneath it to elicit sufficiently good results.
No Champions League was likely the decisive factor that finally did for Louis van Gaal, and a trudge into the Europa League feels as though it will be low on Jose Mourinho’s priority list, especially since he has never featured in the tournament in its modern guise and hasn’t had a team play in it since his Porto team won the then UEFA Cup back in 2002-03. But if he’s sharp about the future, he’ll realise that the Europa League holds a useful purpose as a placeholder for a desired return to the Champions League in 2017-18. Battling on multiple fronts is the default setting for a mega-club, and easing away from that, even to heavily prioritise the league, could send the out wrong message and undermine his overall ethos.
His return to Chelsea is informative here. In 2013-14 he had problems up front with a misfiring Fernando Torres and Demba Ba, yet managed to haul Chelsea late into the title race. Only his prioritisation of a Champions League campaign contributing to some dismal defeats to smaller teams at key moments, kept that team from following the twin attacking forces of that season’s Man City and Liverpool sides right down to the wire.
He extracted the maximum from that team quickly and of course built further with the signings of Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa to win the 2014-15 title, but also had a solid base to begin with. Whether Manchester United are so blessed is an arguable point and to consider them as anywhere near the quality of that Chelsea team only becomes possible if we rate their transfer business highly.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is an obvious starting point and poses a fascinating question having come off the most prolific season of his career, a 50 goal blitz in his last year at Paris Saint Germain. Averaging over five shots a game during 2015-16 is at the high end of his career rate–he’s consistently been a four shot a game man for years–and understandably at that volume, his expected goal rate was high, over 0.9 per game, enough to rank him in the top three in Europe’s big five leagues.
But he’s 35 in October. PSG coasted through their league last year, and that’s not a luxury Manchester United will be able to enjoy, so can Zlatan keep pace? Or will he need to be rotated regularly? And he certainly isn’t a long term solution. It’s a fun signing but backed with big questions about suitability and workload.
Another player with a mega output last year but with less obvious downside is Henrikh Mkhitaryan. At 27 he’s landing right on his prime years and off the back of 11 goals and 15 assists for Borussia Dortmund last year has the potential to be a game changing signing. With an expected goal rate of around 0.3 per 90 (from 2.6 shots per game), and an expected assist rate of over 0.4 per 90 (from 2.8 key passes), his 2015-16 season was about as good as you get for a non-striker. He arrives as an elite talent and likely creative hub and is a welcome addition to the league. Any question mark around him could be that he thrived so much under Thomas Tuchel that previous seasons look notably lesser. Will Mourinho empower him in the same way? Here’s his chances created over the last three seasons, an added focus on set pieces in 2015-16 but also a big rise in volume and the target location is much improved:
Eric Bailly arrives as an expensive centre back option and we’re left with the “will he/won’t he” Paul Pogba saga as the last piece of Mourinho’s jigsaw. If Bastian Schweinsteiger’s days are indeed numbered, then reinforcements here are vital, regardless of whether it’s Pogba or not. Genuine elite talent has been thin on the ground at United in recent seasons. Rooney certainly had it, but has old legs. David de Gea is a world class keeper and there are bags of potential in both Memphis Depay and Anthony Martial, but beyond that, United have been an expensive but underwhelming unit for some years.
It’s hard to distinguish whether van Gaal’s methods squeezed the maximum return from a moderate squad or that his attacking handbrake unnecessarily capped their potential. The team profiled like a top four side across a number of metrics:
- Shots against: 3rd
- Shots on target against: 2nd
- Possession: 1st
- Pass% For and Pass % against: 3rd
All of these metrics describe the style as much as anything else. Lots of safe possession, and limiting the opposition’s chances. Their raw conversions ranked highly too, ranked top four or five, so they both limited opposition shots (solid, repeatable) and somehow stopped the ones that got through (variable, non-repeatable). This is where the “good base to work from” idea takes shape, because van Gaal got it about three quarters right. It’s just sadly for him, the cost for the success of this method came in the format of a lack of thrills, shots and goals:
- Shots for: 15th
- Shots on target for: 12th
- Expected goals For: 11th
- Mean xG per shot: 10th
There isn’t a magic formula for Manchester United hidden among their shot quality, the volume was poor, and the type of chances they created were largely moderate. And you don’t need stats to tell you that lumping it up to Fellaini is a strategy that doesn’t sell tickets. But this is where all the remedial work needs to be done. Mourinho clearly knows this hence the Zlatan and Mkhitaryan signings, two guys coming off super hot goal output and creation seasons, but they need to stay fit and function instantly. Transfers are a mixed bag, and they don’t always work, so the message needs to get through to the rest of the squad too. In the past he has pared back his squad, used a small core and it’s come with a cost. In 2013-14, Chelsea tired, in 2014-15 their results stayed fine but they were limping over the line with a necessary defence first outlook starkly different to early season vigour. His major current flaw seems to be not understanding how much he needs to rotate to keep a team fresh going into the business end of the season. It’s also important not to forget that United have suffered a severe injury crisis in each of the last two seasons. Does Mourinho have the wherewithal to stop that happening again? It’s hard to say, but if it’s the same institutional problem that has consistently skewered Arsenal’s higher ambition for years, it will need attention regardless.
Title, top four or bust?
Last year the bookmakers pegged Manchester United as fourth favourites for the title, this year with a little Mourinho sauce and a side of Zlatan fever they have them bumped up to second favourite, only a shade behind Manchester City. On paper this seems absurd. While their absolute first team looks superior to last time round, is it too soon to presume there is enough in the squad as a whole to launch them forward sufficiently to genuinely contend? They were 15 points off the pace in 2015-16, and although there is potential for a few teams in this league to bounce into wildly different positions, it’s optimistic to think that United are poised to make up that gap, especially given that it’s Mourinho’s first season.
There are ideas around that posit that a van Gaal tenure is akin to a good curry base, and a coach that follows him can benefit by stirring in the meat. With Mourinho having fashioned at least some of his methods under the tutelage of his former boss, virtues of organisation, discipline, the team ethic and repetitive task learning have already been instilled. Mourinho won’t shy away from those, but still has to maintain and build a prosperous attack, without letting the defensive end slide but the class in this side isn’t in among its defensive personnel. Any slight sop towards attack could potentially expose a weakness there and Mourinho has a tricky job to attain balance. Maybe Rooney or Depay or Martial drop out early on and Marouane Fellaini or Ashley Young are favoured in workhorse roles? It won’t thrill fans if they see attacking talent benched but at least while he gets his team settled and organised, it could well be stoicism first and flair later. What of Rashford? Are there enough minutes to go round for Mourinho to empower the various young talents he has in his squad?
Beyond Leicester, who were on another planet as far as season on season improvement goes, the two teams in recent years to bounce forward from United’s 2015-16 level and contend for the title are Manchester City in 2011-12 and Tottenham last year. City bought top class talent to bridge the gap, while Tottenham benefited from stability, defensive reinforcement and something of a positive skew. But both teams shared the benefit of a manager in their second season; a full pre-season, methods already learned and a bedding in period long since passed. Mourinho does not have that luxury, yet the lofty aim will be the same. He needs to find 15 or more points from somewhere, for unless he is contending for the title, his own high standards and historical record will deem him to be underperforming. Should he miss the top four it will be a failure. The league is ever harder. Any of six to ten teams have at least light designs on the Champions League positions, and they can’t all prevail.
No room for error, Jose.
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