Let us talk for a minute about Manchester United.
The team is revitalized under Ole Gunnar Solskjær. The Jose Mourinho cloud is gone. The points are coming fast and furious. The side just completed a historic comeback in the Champions League and sent Paris Saint-Germain packing. There is also the small matter of the fact that their results seem, by the numbers, to be well outstripping their performances. Does it matter?
First, let’s lay down some parameters. United are clearly better now than they were. Obviously that’s present in their results, but it’s also present in just about every aspect of performance we can capture in the numbers. Their xG trend lines aren’t exactly telling an ambiguous story.
Since Solskjær came to town, the team is fourth in the Premier League in expected goals per match with 1.48 per match, and third in shots with 14.42. Under Mourinho they were sixth with 1.30 and fifth with 13.62. On the defensive side of the ball they went from seventh with 1.11 xG per match conceded and ninth with 12.54 shots conceded to fourth with 0.92 and seventh with 11.58. Those are legitimate steps in the right direction.
On top of the improvement in their underlying numbers, they’ve also improved beyond them. This is the shot map of a team that’s running very very hot.
And a defense that is similarly playing above its head.
There’s nothing particularly ambiguous about what’s going on with United. They have both improved and gone on a hot streak at the same time. And here it’s important to talk about what exactly it means to get hot. From an xG perspective it simply means whatever is causing the team to score more and concede less is not accounted for in the model. Because the model works, and we know that teams over time largely converge to where the xG model predicts they will be, whatever is causing United’s hot run of form, is likely to be temporary, even as the underlying improvement proves more durable.
The next question, at least as it relates to Solskjær, is how much of the temporary stuff that the team is riding is he responsible for, and how much truly is just the soccer gods. Some stuff is clearly out of his control. The fact that a referee awarded a marginal handball decision to keep United alive in the Champions League on a Wednesday night in Paris doesn’t make him a better manager. Similarly, if the ref hadn’t awarded the penalty it doesn’t make him worse. Some things, even things that massive results hinge on, are truly out of a manager’s hands.
Other things are harder to judge. There’s the so-called new manager bump. It’s easy to understand how a team might respond positively to a new manager, especially after a contentious end to an old regime. Sometimes those changes are easily reflected in xG. And United’s xG has improved. To boil it down to its simplest terms. Mourinho had benched Paul Pogba. Then Mourinho got fired and Paul Pogba started playing again (and in a more free role than he ever had under the Portuguese manager) and voila, improvement. A new manager bump explained, and completely under the auspices of improvements in xG.
Of course, there could be more than that going on. Maybe the sense of comradery and common purpose around the team contributed to the backup midfielders being more ready to play than one might expect on Wednesday (though conversely you might also have to wonder about the rash of injuries that led to having to play a backup midfield and what role the new manager has in causing that). Maybe there really just is a sense of magic around the squad generated by a club legend walking in and giving them free rein to play how they want to play.
The beauty of methodology like xG is that you don’t have to deny that those things exist. You just have to properly situate them and understand that in the grand scheme of things they are fleeting. Which, when you think about something like a “new manager bounce,” is obvious. The whole idea of a new manager bounce is that it’s a temporary uptick in form brought about by the new voice, that fades as the new manager becomes, simply, the manager.
There is tremendous amount of room for debate about why things happen in football. Nobody knows better than people immersed in analytics how truly long the long run is, and how frequently the results of a team can diverge from their underlying numbers, and for how long those divergences can persist. As the old saying goes, the market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent. And Leicester City won a Premier League title.
What does that ultimately mean for United? Well, the questions surrounding them right now are interesting. How much of what’s going on right now should be laid at the feet of the manager and how much of it is simply proverbial VAR calls that he has no power to influence going the right way for this squad over and over again?
What analytics adds to the table is a hard boundary on those questions. Whatever the answer, even if lots of it is down to Solskjær, it won’t continue forever. Whether it’s tomorrow, next month, or next season, the ball is going to stop flying into the top corner for United, all the penalty calls will stop going their way, and their performances will drift back to what their numbers suggest they should be. The good news is that those numbers are better than they used to be. That bad news is that those numbers suggest worse results than those that have been rolling in under Solskjær so far.
Ultimately that discussion is relatively unimportant for the rest of this season. Solskjær is the manager. After seeming adrift of the top four, the team is in the thick of the race for the Champions League spots, and now, they’re in the quarterfinal of the Champions League itself. But, come this summer, when this year’s race is run, the cold reality of the numbers will again come to the fore. Manchester United will have to decide whether Solskjær deserves the job permanently. And if analytics tell us anything, it’s at that point, the numbers contain more information about what the future holds than the results do.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association