Manchester United, Atlético Madrid And The Problem With Old Fullbacks
Manchester United and Atlético Madrid have some interesting similarities. Both came second in their domestic leagues last season and are recent Europa League winners. Despite this, they've had some troubling underlying numbers which continued into this season. Their goalkeepers have helped hide defensive issues. They both have a misfiring center forward. This week they both face Champions League fixtures against teams that beat them soundly in their last European outing. And they both have thirty-three year old fullbacks.
The Numbers At United and Atleti
Manchester United are in seventh position in the English Premier League after eleven matches. It would have taken many more late goals against Bournemouth on Saturday to leapfrog the Cherries into sixth place given Jose Mourinho's side's goal difference of just plus one. The underlying numbers present an even worse story. United have created an average of 1.26 expected goals per match and conceded an average of 1.31. That negative expected goal difference ranks Manchester United just tenth in the league. Atlético Madrid sit third in La Liga on points but they've been helped into that position by the poor form of Real Madrid, Valencia and Real Betis. Diego Simeone's team have created an average xG of just 0.91 per game and have conceded an average of 0.98. They too have a negative expected goal difference. Their average xG difference per match is 0.34 worse this season than it was last season. Manchester United have had an even more significant decline of 0.50 xG per match compared to last season. This time around David De Gea hasn't been able to perform quite as many miracles and they've already conceded more goals than Chelsea did in the whole of Mourinho's first season as their manager.
Atléti are allowing a lot more passes per defensive action than one might expect. Do you think of them as defensive but furiously aggressive? Drilled to hunt the ball down and win it back? Well they're losing that identity. They've been allowing a steady increase in passes per defensive action since the start of 2018. Teams are getting in behind them and they are allowing high quality shots in a pocket close to goal. They are mainly in third because of goalkeeper Jan Oblak who is profiling as the best in La Liga. He's helped them to significantly over perform xG defensively. Over in Manchester they're conceding high quality shots at will and there's a very significant lack of aggressive actions. Mourinho has aimed criticism at his revolving cast of center backs for the defensive failings and has made no secret of the fact he is keen to purchase another player for that position in January. If the bus is parked then it's because it failed a safety inspection. The tires deflated weeks ago. David Beckham is bending a free kick through a window in a silly advert for Chevrolet. Paul Pogba is listening to Presnel Kimpembe's Coupe du Monde playlist on his phone speaker upstairs. This bus is stopping very little traffic.
At the other end of the pitch there are some similarities between the teams. Both tend to go long from the goalkeeper and struggle to create high quality attempts on goal. They may have outperformed expectation but it has been evident that this is the case. The strikers have taken the blame for this on both teams. Alexis Sánchez and Antoine Griezmann have underwhelmed, although many of the Chilean's underlying numbers are good. The real scorn has been reserved for center forwards Romelu Lukaku and Diego Costa. Costa has failed to score since February. Lukaku can't seem to progress beyond the 2.5 shot per 90 minute mark. Even the much maligned Alvaro Morata is taking at least one more than that per match.
However, defense and attack are not isolated entities. Especially at the elite level in modern football, they are linked. Central defenders can commit terrible errors under pressure but the ball doesn't arrive in their zone by magic. Similarly, few strikers can shoot without service. What's linking these parts of the pitch? Often it's the fullbacks. Full back. A bit of misnomer now given that they can be stationed high up the pitch or inverted or patrolling an entire flank themselves. Whatever their role this position is a blend of talent and toil. Skill and self-sacrifice. Adventurous dribbling and astute diligence. Speed of thought and speed of foot. A balance of physical and mental attributes. Maybe the most demanding role on the entire football pitch. At Manchester United and Atlético Madrid this role has been filled at times by Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia, Filipe Luis and Juanfran. They're all thirty-three years old and that's possibly just too old for a fullback at this level.
The Collective Impact At United And Atleti
Mourinho's compatriot Carlos Carvalhal, former Swansea and Sheffield Wednesday manager, has previously dismissed the benefits of statistics in football with a bizarre chicken picnic analogy.
This week he complained that football's collective nature could not be understood by data analysis. He stated; "By isolating the individual you do not understand the whole. Football is a collective game. A collective game is made by connections. Connections, you don’t have any machine that can evaluate those."
In fact, data analysis can show that for Atlético Madrid one outcome for the collective is the midfield having to do the work for the fullbacks. Central midfielders Koke and Saul are helping left back Luis. They are allowing him to sit deep defensively by protecting the area in front of him.
They are also firefighting behind him when he ventures forward. At thirty-three years old and with a serious injury earlier in the year and Wold Cup minutes in the tank Luis just doesn't have the recovery pace anymore. This must be exhausting for Saul and Koke. Little wonder they're not able to help create chances for Costa and Griezmann.
On the other side Juanfran isn't applying pressure and is no longer an attacking force; providing few deep progressions. He's also picked up five yellow cards in just seven La Liga matches which is indicative of not being able to keep up with younger opponents.
He's not alone in this regard. At Manchester United Valencia has two yellows in four league matches. Young has picked up three in seven. He also got a yellow when chasing shadows late in the dizzying Champions League defeat to Juventus. All those fouls are a dangerous thing to be giving away given Manchester United's struggles when facing set pieces this season.
Young has had a clear decline in terms of ball progression and pressures. He appears to be more conservative with a focus on tackling and interceptions. Mourinho acknowledged this week that Manchester United have been playing more defensively and this was to hide some weaknesses. Young might be under strict instructions as Mourinho is concerned about opponents exploiting the space behind him. Certainly when Pogba has possession in deep midfield Young appears very reticent to move forward and provide any sort of lateral out ball. This isn't the only impact on Pogba as result of Young's age related decline.
The first image shows Pogba's defensive activity in the 2017/18 season. Below that is his defensive activity this season. This season he has been far more active in wider zones. Maybe he too is exhausted by firefighting for old fullbacks. Thankfully he has time to catch his breath during his long penalty run up.
When Luis, Juanfran, Young and Valencia do advance into attacking areas they have often been ineffective this season. They've been generally poor in one on one situations. They've caused their teammates to hang back and cover behind them which has limited the chance for overloads. They've passed backwards. Young has set up just one open play key pass for Lukaku. Juanfran and Luis have created no chances for Costa. In contrast, Real Madrid's left back Marcelo has made the third most open play key passes per 90 minutes in Europe's top five leagues.
So these old fullbacks are sitting deeper and inviting more pressure onto their fellow defenders. They're causing more work for midfielders. They're not creating chances for forwards. The focus on centre backs and centre forwards is understandable but fullback is clearly a problem.
The Future For United and Atleti
Both teams do have other options in the position. In fact Luke Shaw has played the most minutes there this season for United. However, Valencia has been injured and it is possible he and Young would be first choice if both were available for a big match. Diogo Dalot is yet to play any minutes in the league since signing from Porto. Atlético Madrid allowed Sime Vrsaljko to leave this summer but did bring in Santiago Arias as a rotation option at right back. Lucas Hernandez can play at left back and Jonny will return from his loan at Wolves next summer.
Given that Young, Valencia, Juanfran and Luis are going to play significant minutes this season it hasn't been a brilliantly executed transition for either club. Some of them may still be around at thirty-four next season. However, this is a tough situation. Simeone can see his trusted lieutenants Diego Godin, Costa, Juanfran and Luis edging towards the end of their top level careers all around the same time and might not be ready to let go. Capable, loyal allies are important. It's easy to coldly identify statistical decline and obviously tough to ease out a right hand man while still maintaining progress. Despite this it will have to be done. Simeone's militaristic soundbites about his team used to seem apt. Now, they're bunkered down in the last days of war. They're conserving ammo and thinking anxiously about winter. The supply lines, not to ports, but to their forwards, are cut off. Mourinho might be seeing his own inability to modernize or bend the changing world to his will reflected back at him in the aging of his captains Young and Valencia. They're certainly good examples of the apparent lack of strategic thought about recruitment at Old Trafford in recent years. It could be time for both clubs to spend striker money on fullbacks, which Mourinho lamented that Manchester City were able to do.
Fullback, like center forward, can be a difficult position to recruit depth for at an elite club. Found someone good enough? Well they probably want to play every week and not ride the bench. Crystal Palace's Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Lyon's Ferland Mendy might be options for both to consider. There are some good signs in terms of tackling, particularly from Wan-Bissaka. In addition both offer an attacking threat with dribbling and deep progression of the ball.
Eventually age comes for us all, and stars a top clubs are not exception. Whether it's Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery at Bayern Munich, or Luka Modric and Sergio Ramos at Real Madrid when the clock turns 30, things can begin to get ugly. For Manchester United and Atlético Madrid it's the fullbacks who are struggling against the inevitable. In the modern game, wide defenders simply have nowhere to hide. Fullbacks have the unique ability to sink a team's attack and defense at the same time. Mourinho and Simeone need their fullbacks to discover the fountain of youth. When that fails, they're simply going to have to pay a lot of money for some new ones.