Are the good times back? Ole Gunnar Solskjær is closing in on two years in the Manchester United hotseat and there’s a creeping realisation that the longer he’s been there the better things have got. That’s not to say that the journey to this point has been smooth or linear, or that the actual tangible on-pitch improvement is impossible to deny. It’s more subtle than that. When United are good, they can be very good. On paper, they have an array of attacking talent that few can match in Anthony Martial, Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford and now Mason Greenwood. In defence, they were only a clip behind Liverpool and Manchester City last season and their expected metrics there were very solid. The recruitment of Fernandes in late January became a clear stake in the ground. While significantly more erratic prior to his arrival, United were unbeaten in the league from that moment onwards (fourteen games) and only lost their first match since his arrival at the club in the FA Cup semi-final in July against Chelsea. The familiar sight of Fernandes finishing a penalty occurred seven times in his first few months at the club, his technique and cool head benefiting from a team that won spot kicks at a high pace throughout the season, often thanks to the slaloming skills of Rashford, Pogba and others. But the first half of the season was less encouraging, with an odd mix of good results against strong teams and bad results against weaker sides. The consistent later form coincided with a more stable first eleven, and a kind post-Covid fixture list was the perfect environment for Pogba to return to and for Greenwood to show a finishing run exceeding that of Rashford’s own emergence four years ago. One of the odd characteristics of Solskjær's reign is how metrics and outcomes have deviated so wildly. It seemed illogical to exclude penalties from this chart (just this once!) since they were such a feature of the 2019-20 season, but it shows expected goal difference and actual goal difference across his whole tenure and how rarely the twain shall meet: Translation? Expected metrics have slowly crept upwards over time, kinda, actual goal outcomes look more like a heart monitor. This tendency towards wild deviations has actually caused narratives to become slightly faulty. The blast of finishing and run of penalties while Fernandes has been at the club gives the impression that United's attack is their strength, when actually the opposite is likely true--the defence is their bedrock and has been for some while: A season long expected goal against value of around 0.9 per game is in the ballpark of their rivals--including Manchester City and Liverpool. A season long expected goal for value of 1.3 per game parks then between Southampton and Everton. If this team has designs of winning enough games to point upwards out of the island of third to fourth, it will first and foremost need to get better in attack. How can this be achieved? The front five United fielded during their unbeaten run are a blend of dual purpose longer range shooters and creators (Pogba and Fernandes), shooters (Rashford and Greenwood) and a player with long term finishing prowess who has seen creativity drop off as he's been empowered into a centre forward role (Martial). It's likely that carrying Rashford, Greenwood and Martial (in this role) damages the ability for this team to create a high volume of chances. As we saw towards the end of the season, if Fernandes is quiet, United can really drift and lack incisive creativity. The depth in this area of the pitch is not ideal too with the likes of Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata or Andreas Pereira more sporadic and limited influences. The ship has sailed, but ironically, the profile provided by Alexis Sánchez, or at least a younger more virile version of him, would fit well into this set-up. Somewhere, United's balance of shooting and creativity needs to skew towards the latter. It's what makes the [potential] signing of Donny van de Beek ostensibly curious, as it's quite hard to directly envisage which of United's current attackers or midfielders he will likely replace, or specifically how he'd fit into midfield given how little he tends to contribute towards general buildup. Of course, as more required depth, he's entirely fine, but there's not an obvious way to get Van de Beek into a starting lineup that include Martial, Rashford and Greenwood unless you're entirely throwing caution to the wind and giving midfield a complete pass. This then undermines your already solid defence and puts a heck of a lot onto Pogba and/or Fernandes. This isn't Garth Crooks' team of the week; the Matic/Fred role can't just be abandoned. But at least this problem exists. Yes, the squad needs more depth and the drop off should injury hit any key starter is severe but the outright Manchester United first XI nearly picks itself, something that hasn't always been the case in the post-Ferguson era. To be more generally positive though, in Greenwood and his breakthrough, another fine talent looks to have been unearthed but this has slightly deflected focus on the development of Rashford. Of the attacking unit, his form was perhaps the least impressive post-lockdown, but now in a more settled left sided position, on aggregate his progression is tangible: He still likes a dip from range, but has shown ever greater ability to get into good quality finishing positions, and at 22 years old, can't be far off the finished article as a player. Martial too appeared to prosper given the centre forward position. His 17 goals from an expected 10 was a welcome boost, but only continues a theme: few players are over their xG every season, but he has been for his entire time at United, albeit not to this degree before: If we turn to the new man, Van de Beek, his main qualities can be seen inside the box too. He looks to be a good quality finisher, as we can see from two seasons of Eredivisie shots here: He's predominantly right footed, but there's some left foot and head in there too. We reviewed him for our Pro-Scouting project and our executive summary was as follows: Strengths ● Exceptional off-ball movement in and around the penalty area. ● Goalscoring and chance creation numbers outstanding. ● Positionally versatile, can play as central or attacking midfielder. Weaknesses ● Little involvement in build-up. ● Limited defensive output. Summary Donny van de Beek is world-class within his role. He is an exceptional goalscorer from midfield and combines that with great chance creation numbers. However, his involvement in other areas of the game is limited. It is unclear whether or not this profile is enough for clubs at the very highest level, to which he is often linked. Current: Europa League top 5 leagues Potential: Champions League level, in a very defined role. Transfer Potential ● Ajax do not sell cheap, transfer fee likely to be upwards of 40m. My sense here is that the best of Van de Beek may come later in his contract if United continue to build and recruit well, and he's able to fulfil a specific role, but goals and assists from midfield win friends and can cover sins, so he may well come out ahead regardless. With a deal for Jadon Sancho seemingly receding in likelihood and Lionel Messi yet to be sighted in Lancashire, that's it so far for United. The one position that needs no attention is goalkeeper with David De Gea likely to continue despite a less than stellar 2019-20 and Dean Henderson's future slightly uncertain. He won't be returning to Sheffield United, but is plenty good enough to continue as a Premier League number one for someone. Could there be more depth in defence? The work done last summer in acquiring Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire locked down two positions and Luke Shaw has staged something of a renaissance to claim left-back. Victor Lindelöf has nailed down the other starting role across the last two seasons, and again it feels like a question of whether the assorted depth that exists can cover sufficiently, or whether new blood is needed. It would be great to see Eric Bailly or Phil Jones find a run of form and fitness but those eternal question marks mean another centre back would be nice, while Brandon Williams was a successful find last season and can cover both defensive flanks as required. United's whole line up does feel one key injury away from sticking plasters in most positions so another defender and midfield option would tidily round out the summer. Projection Manchester United have a curious schedule to start. They don't face an away trip to a team that finished in the top half last season until week 12 and Sheffield United on December 15th. Of course this means a bunch of better rated teams visiting Old Trafford early on, including Manchester City, Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea, from which they got 10/12 points in the corresponding 2019-20 fixtures. A few things will probably happen:
- Greenwood's finishing will cool off. He looks a rare talent, but will not often in his career score 10 goals for every 3.7 xG he generates as he did in the league last season
- Penalty returns will reduce. United had a +11 balance (albeit they missed four meaning +7 in goals). Next best in the Premier League across four seasons is +8. They do win a lot of penalties and may continue to do so, but in all likelihood, the gap shrinks between won and conceded.
- The defence will not allow five goals from the next 145 shots (and 12.6 xG) as it did during the 14 game unbeaten run. This equates to opposition finishing at 3.4% which is about as low as when Leicester experienced a wild and unsustainable opponent finishing run, that ultimately powered their title charge in 2015-16. Across the whole season, United's defence was close to its xG, but short term mega-skews should not be misinterpreted as legitimate form changes. The defence is good regardless, just not this good.
Elsewhere, it's hard to pull apart the numbers and categorically conclude this team is moving onwards and upwards quickly. A further comfortable top four finish, with a boost underneath in the stats would probably again represent progress. It's easy to forget the difficulties that this team faced during the first half of 2019-20 and how different it looked then compared to later. Perhaps the two cup defeats were emblematic of the status this United team has reached: nearly there but not quite. Again though the foundation feels a lot more sturdy than it did twelve months ago, and were the board to reach out and make another signing that had the potential to impact as much as Fernandes has, accelerating to better outcomes is achievable. In Solskjær, United may not have a manager driven by an emphatic football philosophy, but they may have one who is able to continue this incremental build towards a stable, strong, talented and competitive team.
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