We’re now at the halfway point of what has been a frustrating campaign for Manchester United. A quick glance at the league table would tell you that United is off to its worst start in Premier League history.
Yikes. That’s pretty bad. So maybe you’d want to see what the fans are saying. Over on Twitter — and I have to remind you (if not constantly remind myself) that United Twitter is a loud minority of the fan base — the spirit could not be more pessimistic. The #OleOut brigade spin every quote from manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer into a negative. As recently as Christmas Eve, multiple fans were saying that if Solskjaer isn’t sacked then the best they could hope for in the second half of the season was to avoid relegation.
You’d probably then want to take a closer look at the table just to see how bad things are. How close are United to the relegation zone?
What’s that? United are seventh, and only four points off the top four.
Let’s call a spade a spade here. Seven wins from 19 league games ain’t good. There’s no sugarcoating it. It’s unacceptable and it one hundred percent needs to change.
However, when you take a step back and look at the big picture, the numbers tell a different story. United’s season may not be going well, but it certainly hasn’t been catastrophic.
Let’s start by remembering where things were at the start of the season. United finished sixth last year. The manager and board announced they were going to rebuild the squad and that it was going to take time. They then let Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sánchez, Ander Herrera, and Chris Smalling leave, only replacing Smalling. They were leaving the squad thin, and trusting a lot of younger inexperienced players to play big roles.
When the season kicked off, fans were livid with Ed Woodward for not having a more active summer. I was among the more optimistic ones, believing the team would compete for the top four, but most fans thought the squad simply wasn’t good enough.
If you felt that way in August then it shouldn’t be a surprise that United are where they are five months later, when there hasn’t been any opportunity to improve said squad.
But the funny thing about pre-season predictions are that they’re about the full season, and with a half season left, there’s plenty of time to right any wrongs.
That brings us back to the numbers.
All season long this Manchester United team has reminded me of Jurgen Klopp’s 2014/15 Borussia Dortmund squad. Not because of the tactics, talent, or age of the squad, but because the results weren’t matching up with the performances.
That Dortmund team —still widely considered to be the second best team in Germany — got off to a nightmare start. They conceded just nine seconds into the season and it didn’t get better. At the halfway point of the season, BVB were 17th, kept out of the bottom place by 1 goal. They had won just 4 games.
It didn’t make sense. They weren’t playing poorly, but they couldn’t win a game in the league. Outside the league it was “situation normal.” They were progressing in the Cup and won their first four Champions League matches to advance to the knockout rounds.
Smart people, such as Colin Trainor at Statsbomb took notice. They were trying to figure whether Dortmund were really this terrible or if they were unlucky. Expected goals models started being formed, that were transferred over to expected points. This Borussia Dortmund team unwittingly ushered in the advanced analytics boom.
Those analytics found that Borussia Dortmund were in fact really unlucky! They were creating chances that should have resulted in goals but didn’t. They were conceding chances that shouldn’t result in goals but were. They may have been 17th, but in terms of expected points they should have been fifth.
Their conclusion? Don’t change anything. If Dortmund were to just play the way they were playing over the second half of the season, the bad luck would balance out and they’d start winning.
That’s exactly what happened. The ball started bouncing Dortmund’s way. They more than doubled the amount of wins they had over the second half of the season, slashed their losses by more than half, and ended up charging up the table to finish 7th.
What does this have to do with United?
For as “bad” as United have been this season, for as much as they’ve struggled to break down teams that sit deep, United have been really unlucky this year. The table says just as much.
As we get to the halfway point, the Red Devils are fourth in expected goals, third in expected goals against, and fourth in expected points.
In nearly every match United have played this year, they’ve done enough to grab all three points. Their undoing has been a combination of bad finishing, individual errors, and goalkeeping mistakes.
Now, a lot of that is their own doing. Their finishing this year has been extremely poor.
While United are creating enough chances to theoretically win games, if you’re going to be such poor finishers, you need to create even more, especially when mistakes are being made on the other end.
The belief of statistics is that eventually everything regresses to the mean. That means, in theory, that if United keep creating the same quality chances, and conceding the same quality chances, they’ll start scoring more and conceding less, especially those one in a hundred shots that Ruben Neves, Jack Grealish, and Matty Longstaff have hit.
It doesn’t always work out like that. Leicester City defied their xG numbers all year long when they won the 2016 title, but more often than not, things tend to balance out.
With teams such as Tottenham Hotspur, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Sheffield United, and very much Leicester currently out-performing their numbers, it stands to reason that if United simply stay the course they’ll end up above most of those teams at the end of the year. Even if that doesn’t happen, the odds of 11 teams jumping United to throw the Reds into a relegation battle are extremely thin.
With that in mind, there are other reasons to be optimistic, or pessimistic, about United’s chances this season. Let’s look at them.
Reasons for Optimism
I hate the term “like a new signing” but let’s be honest. That’s basically what Paul Pogba is right now.
Pogba has played only six and a bit games this year and that was as United’s defensive midfielder, leaving the creative number 10 role to Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata, and Andreas Pereira. Say what you want about Pogba’s influence in those games, but his two assists this year is still double that of Pereira, Lingard, and Mata combined.
More importantly, since Pogba went down we’ve seen the emergence of Fred as United’s premier defensive midfielder. His partnership with Scott McTominay should allow Pogba to have a lot more freedom up the pitch. Though if McTominay is hurt long term that could be an issue.
Remember, United’s advanced stats this year have been good enough so far, and that’s been with no creativity in the team. All Pogba has to do is come in and be just slightly better than Andreas Pereira or Jesse Lingard, and United are immediately much better off.
Right now, the difference between United being able to break down “low blocks” or not has come down to set pieces. They don’t score on them, essentially forcing them to do all their scoring from open play. Why is this something to be optimistic about?
Quick thread: You know what the biggest difference between Manchester United being able to break down a low block and not has been? Set pieces and penalties. United are the third most fouled team in the league. They've taken the most penalties #MUFC @utdarena— Pauly Kwestel (@pkwestel) December 24, 2019
United are the third most fouled team in the league, but they lead the league in shots directly from a free kick (18), which tells us that they’re getting fouled in dangerous places. Marcus Rashford has taken 13 of those 18 and put 4 of them target. Per AS Stats, only Southampton’s James Ward-Prowse (7) has put more free kicks on target.
Rashford’s free kick abilities have often been ridiculed, but three of the four kicks he’s put on target have come after his sensational free kick in the League Cup against Chelsea. That shows that Rashford is putting in the work on the training ground and improvement is coming. It’s only a matter of time before his strikes in the league start finding the back of the net.
The #OleOut crew doesn’t want to recognize it but it’s impossible to ignore the development of much of the squad this season. Sure Jesse Lingard and Andreas Pereira are still terrible, but they are among the minority of players who haven’t improved under Solskjaer this year.
When Solskjaer took over last season the first thing he did was drop Scott McTominay from the match-day squad, eventually sending him back to the U23s. Now, McTominay is an integral part of the squad. At the start of the season Fred was considered a £52 million bust. Five months later he’s blossomed into a vital defensive midfielder.
Marcus Rashford topped his career best goal return in less than half a season. Anthony Martial is learning and developing as a false 9, whose hold up and link play are vital for United’s creativity. Mason Greenwood is quickly developing into a starlet, and Brandon Williams has jumped from not even being invited on the pre-season tour to being one of United’s best left-backs. And who could forget Daniel James? He’s already become one of the best defensive wingers in the league and with three goals and four assists, he’s already contributed more than Alexis Sánchez ever did in a red shirt.
It’s not a coincidence that all these young players are blossoming under Solskjaer, and it would be naive to think they won’t continue to get better over the second half of the year.
When you consistently get fouled in dangerous places it makes sense that that would translate to the penalty area as well. United lead the league in penalties taken with eight, but they’ve missed a whopping four of them. Missed penalties were enough to cost them a win against Wolves and at least a result against Crystal Palace.
Statistically, penalties are converted about 76% of the time. If we believe in numbers and United are awarded another eight penalties in the second half of the year, it’s statistically more likely for them to convert eight out of eight rather than four out of eight again. How many points would that be worth?
Reasons for Pessimism
Again, United don’t score from them. Despite signing Harry Maguire they remain impotent on set pieces. Perhaps it’s because they don’t have anyone besides Maguire who can be a threat on a set piece. Or perhaps it’s because they don’t have someone who can whip a decent ball into the box, or at least beat the first man.
United have scored three goals from set pieces this year (one set piece, two corners). It’s telling that two of them were originally ruled own goals (with one being given to Scott McTominay after an appeal).
Set Piece Defending
This is the biggest concern of all. United have conceded 23 goals this season with an astonishing eight being from either set pieces or penalties. To make matters worse, since Luke Shaw returned, giving them their full “first choice” defense fully fit, they’ve conceded four of those eight goals.
This comes right down to coaching. Conceding goals from set pieces is solved on the training ground and the fact that it’s gotten worse recently, rather than better, is deeply concerning.
Playing To Your Numbers
We’ve already talked about Marcus Rashford’s conversion rate on here multiple times. The same way teams will revert to the mean, players have the same tendency to play to the back of their baseball cards. And for Rashford, that’s not good. His 12.73% conversion rate is bad. It’s a tick up from his 11.90% rate last season, but that’s not really enough to suggest that it’s getting significantly better. Rashford’s career Premier League conversion rate is 13.79%, so there’s slight room for improvement but that’s still not great.
Rashford is only 22 and this could be the year he really makes the leap and improves that number. But so far that hasn’t happened. Despite the gluttony of goals this year, Rashford still hasn’t bagged a brace without a penalty since the 2-1 win over Liverpool in 2018.
David de Gea
Part of the reason United fell out of the top four at the end of the year was because of an uncharacteristically horrific spell from De Gea towards the end of the year. It was a rough patch that happens to everyone but world class players like De Gea get out of them.
Except, De Gea hasn’t. He’s still making silly mistakes that are proving costly. At a certain point you have to wonder whether world class De Gea will ever return, or whether this is the guy United will be stuck with for the next few years.
When all is said and done, can Solskjaer be trusted to fix these issues?
Solskjaer is not doing nearly as bad a job as it’s made out to be. While United struggling to beat lesser sides is a major concern, Solskjaer’s record against the big six clubs can’t be discounted.
Solskjaer has proven he can go toe to toe with the best of them, now he has to prove he can beat the others.
Since the start of the season Solskjaer has spoken about a rebuild and a long term plan. It’s not going to be fixed over one transfer window, and for that reason alone, the board needs to back him in January. If they don’t, then United’s problems go higher up than the manager.
Solskjaer has earned the right to see out the season. Does that mean he’s proven that he’s the right man to lead United in the future, or even next year? That is still up in the air.
This season has been about answering questions and assessing the squad. A lot of questions have already been answered. We know where the squad lacks. We know the issues that are plaguing the squad. The second half of the season is when Solskjaer must prove he can fix these issues. If he does that, United will move up the table and there won’t even be questions about his job status. If he doesn’t, then it’s probably time to find someone else next summer.