2017/18 will be Manchester United's fifth season without Sir Alex Ferguson in the dug-out. A half-decade. In Ferguson's final half-decade, United finished 1st, 2nd, 1st, 2nd, and 1st in the league (remarkably patterned consistency, I know). In the years since, the club have finished 7th, 4th, 5th, and 6th. Rarely has there been a starker before and after picture for a managerial change, and if United don't get back to the Premier League podium soon, they might start to wonder about whether they'll need to wait another half-decade, or even longer.
It doesn't help them that Jose Mourinho's second season in charge will be spent, again, amidst the fiercest battle for the Top 4 that the Premier League may ever have had. Last August, James Yorke wrote a Premier League season preview teaser for the Champions League qualification places titled ‘6 into 4 won’t go’. A year on, and we have exactly the same situation.
For United, there are several possible scenarios for the coming season:
- The team's much-talked-about problems in converting chances revert back to normal levels, and naturally propel United up into a stronger place in the Top 4 battle.
- The new signings combine with this, and spur United on to - possibly - a title challenge
- United's much-talked-about conversion problems were more of an underlying issue than people thought; Mourinho continues to play 6-3-1 against any team who resembles competition; new signings do not improve the side to a meaningful extent; and the distraction of the Champions League affects form in the Premier League, the result being that United struggle in the Top 4 race, or even limp along behind it
Firstly, the conversion issue. The consensus among analysts online is that United underperformed against what one would be expected from the quality of chances they were creating, as quantified by Expected Goals. While the final table may not have showed it, the general theory goes, they actually performed at top 4 level, and were somewhat unfortunate not to attain it (although this was slightly skewed late on as they deliberately tanked the back-end of the season in order to focus on the Europa League).
I am slightly more sceptical. The first reason is that, by eye, I didn't think that United were as good as some gave them credit for. There was a period in the middle of the season when United were genuinely good - fortunately for Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo, that period coincided with their run in the side. However, at other times there were genuine problems in the side, and I think this may have been a bigger factor in their poor conversion than is given credit. At times the team struggled to create, reverted to launching the ball to Fellaini and Zlatan too often and the overall intensity just went down after peaking in the mid season period. This in turn contributed to the many draws, often at home and the aggregation of shots and struggle to convert were at least in part a function of these difficulties.
There is also the Zlatan Ibrahimovic question to consider. He certainly had a lot of chances, and certainly missed some notably good ones. However, he made up for some of the big chances he missed by scoring a number that he really wouldn't be expected to. Below are his shots grouped by Expected Goals value into bins.
Two things. 1) Of chances below an xG value of 0.05 - or, below a 5% likelihood - he scored 5 of 41. That works out at just over 12%.
2) At the other end of the scale, he only scored 4 of 15 shots (26.67%) with an xG value of 0.3 or more. So, yes, Zlatan did miss a lot of good chances – but it was also partially, if not significantly, balanced in the bigger picture by the miniscule chances which he scored from.
This is what’s known in the biz as swings and roundabouts.
Let’s start at the back and work up.
Victor Lindelöf is more of a significant upgrade in build-up than defence. That’s not to say that he’s not an upgrade over the defensive capabilities of Face-meets-turf, Confidence-meets-rock-bottom, and Studs-meets-shins. It’s just that the gap between Lindelöf and United’s current non-Bailly options is significantly larger in the passing sphere than the defending.
Nemanja Matic has been signed in central midfield, presumably to fit alongside Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba in a midfield three. Matic was a relatively high-volume defensive guy for his first three seasons back at Chelsea, but with Kanté alongside him in 2016/17 these numbers understandably decreased (figures per 90 minutes).
Ander Herrera, last season, made 3.1 tackles and 3 interceptions per 90 minutes, so with Matic coming in and able to play a similar role it will be interesting to see how those duties are shared. United have also played on the counter a lot during pre-season (for what that’s worth), so having two mobile play-breakers like Herrera and Matic (more mobile than Carrick, at least) could suit that style down to the ground.
At the top of the pitch, Romelu Lukaku in and Zlatan Ibrahimovic out seems like a fair swap, especially considering the change in attacking style that it seems to have allowed Mourinho to implement. Having a main man up top who can actually run for 90 minutes has led to a properly counter-attacking style to take hold, the young bucks, Rashford and Martial in particular, able to break forward in a way far more suited to them than the slow build-up they’ve had to endure in their short United careers so far. And as for converting big chances…
Look at all that sweet, sweet United red in the high-quality chances columns. Sure, Zlatan would probably have shifted that way if injury had stayed away and given him another season at United, but it’s fun to compare the difference in outcomes. Hey, if United had had Lukaku performing like this last season, maybe the narrative around them would have been much different.
Top 4 race
Let's remind ourselves of our three scenarios: conversion giving United a boost; conversion + signings giving United a boost; or neither giving United a boost.
The swings in conversion will probably give Jose's men something of a boost, though the extent of it may be small. Will the signings give United a boost? More likely than not.
If Lindelof fails to perform then he'll still likely be playing at a higher level than if Smalling, Jones, or Rojo were failing to perform; and the same rule applies for if he fits right into the side. He'll certainly improve their build-up from the back. In a similar vein, Matic in midfield allows United to stop playing a Carrick who struggles to run or a Fellaini who struggles to [lets United fans finish that sentence].
Lukaku is more of an uncertainty in that his value is purely in what he brings to the side, rather than replacing a below-par player. He's replacing Ibrahimovic, and an Ibrahimovic who defied many peoples' expectations to score goals and be a key figure in United's side. However, even if Lukaku struggles to find the net, he'll likely help bring more out of some of the other attackers in the team, which will help balance out the pros and cons. Best case scenario for Lukaku is therefore very good, while worst case scenario is still likely to be relatively good too.
Noisy neighbours City aside, United have arguably improved in personnel-terms at a better rate than any of their other Top 4 rivals. Liverpool could join them in the squad-improvement stakes if they complete the Van Dijk and/or Keita signings, but until then it's the Mancs on top.
This doesn't exactly help predict where United will finish up this season, though. City and Chelsea will be expected to be firmly in the top 4 (despite the fact that the wave of helpful conversion skews that Chelsea were riding won't last forever, their defence was still formidable). Arsenal, depending on how well the 3-4-2-1 works, might be the team most likely to miss out. Liverpool and Spurs, particularly considering the styles of play which their managers like to use, both have squad depth issues, so how they fare throughout the whole season may be dependent on injury luck. It's worth remembering too that there was just a single point between 4th and 5th place last season.
Expecting United to return to the finishes of Fergie's final days may be asking a little much, but for Mourinho he has to at least avoid the Van Gaalian combination of unentertaining football and mediocre results.
Where exactly will they finish in the current top-of-the-table climate? God knows; although even He might not be certain.