No one quite knows what is going to happen at the world’s biggest club this summer. What was supposed to be a season where United returned to glory looks a lot more like a dumpster fire of missed opportunity. With performance at the top of the league as weak as it has ever been, it’s shocking to find United once again likely to miss out on Champions League play. The question is why? Is it van Gaal’s fault? Are the players not good enough? Is there a brain cloud over Manchester affecting the entire city’s footballing performance? Let’s find out! Facts
- Transfermarkt estimates United have a net spend on transfers of £150M the last two seasons. I suspect this underestimates the Martial deal and includes flipping Angel di Maria to PSG for a loss, but it’s a big number however you slice it.
- Combine that with nearly £60M spent the year after Sir Alex retired and you are looking at well over £200M invested into the playing squad the last three years, two of which were clearly guided by Louis van Gaal’s requirements.
- United’s payroll is monstrous, though so too are their commercial revenues. They can get away with paying high wages, even to declining performers like Wayne Rooney.
In terms of quality, the recruitment has actually been pretty good. Shaw’s injury was bad luck, but Blind, Herrera, Shaw, di Maria, Martial, Memphis, and Schneiderlin are all excellent players. Schweinsteiger was always going to be an occasional guest star because his body was breaking down well before he left Germany, but he’s a classic “winning mentality” guy and a genuine leader. So yeah, I don’t hate the recruitment aside from the prices paid, but if any team in the world can afford to spend to much on good transfers, it’s Manchester United. And yet… this is actually difficult to believe but… Manchester United are generating 11.3 shots a game. That’s bad. Actually, it’s putrid. The only teams who create fewer chances a game are the three teams that are probably getting relegated plus attacking powerhouses West Brom Albion and Stoke. Let me put this a different way… BIG SAM’S TEAM TAKES MORE SHOTS A GAME THAN MANCHESTER UNITED. Over £200M in net spend, can’t create more shots than Sunderland. We can talk about shot quality all you want, but LVG’s United are taking 50% fewer shots than the elite teams in the league. That might be a problem if you want to compete for CL spots, let alone win a title. Yes, the defense has been good, but there’s a bit of luck involved. Okay fine, some say “luck”, others say “the otherworldly skills of David de Gea.” Either way, the tradeoffs for keeping the defense sound is making eunuchs out of all the attackers. That’s a huge systemic flaw, and the blame for it can’t be pointed anywhere else except van Gaal. To illustrate the drop-off a little more clearly, I’ve taken shot maps from the last Fergie season and put them next to what United have done in 37 league matches this year for comparison. Let’s start with the defense. (Click to embiggen) Despite giving up 20 shots to West Ham on Tuesday, LVG’s team this year will concede somewhere between 15 and 20% fewer shots than the last Fergie team. The quality of shot conceded is a fraction higher, while they block 5% fewer. So Fergie’s United gave up more volume in defense but the rest is a bit of a wash. Now for the attack… Woof. 25% fewer shots taken, which over the course of a season is 125-150 shots less. Quality of shot generated is also about 25% lower. Combine those two factors and you end up with a FORTY goal difference between the two years with one game left to play. Fergie’s teams were amazing at generating central shots between the penalty spot on the goal. LVG’s are anything but, and that’s likely to cost them another Champions League campaign. The players are good. Compare the squad to West Ham and Southampton, both of whom have scored more goals than United and have a better goal differential, and figure out which one you’d rather have. United are losing out compared to title contenders in attack, and their players aren’t allowed to attack aggressively because how they defend doesn’t allow it. So to me, the problem is the tactical system they are playing, which is dictated by… Non-United fans love van Gaal at least as much as David Moyes, which pretty much tells you everything you need to know about how good United have been under the former Dutch master.