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Statistical Analysis: Assessing every Manchester United defender and goalkeeper

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In the first part of our squad review series, we look at goalkeepers and defenders

Manchester United v Arsenal FC - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

Whenever a Manchester United season ends we inevitably move on to “Report Card SZN” where grades are given for every player and countless pieces are written about who should stay and who should be sold.

This is not (completely) one of those series.

We’re not looking to dish out grades or ratings for player performances this season. Rather, the idea is to look at how each player contributed this season and what their role should be in this team next season. That’s a team that should be taking a step forward next season — the standards of year two of a rebuild must be higher than the standards of year one.

Here’s how we’ve defined the roles to be assigned to each player.

  1. First Choice: By default, these players start every game, and the team tactics are being built with them in mind. The only reason they don’t start is either because of injury or rest.
  2. First Team: If these players are fit, they’re in the match-day squad. They should start three or four of every five (league) matches and almost certainly come off the bench in the others. They can be dropped for tactical reasons.
  3. Squad Player: These players can competently step into the XI if needed. They’ll probably be on the bench most games, but in a fully fit squad, it’s not guaranteed. They’ll likely feature heavily in the cups.
  4. Reserve Player: Here for numbers. Injuries happen and teams need to be able to call on someone. These players will get chances in the cups, but they’re not guaranteed — so they’ll need to impress to work their way up the squad hierarchy.
  5. Loan: Send ‘em out on loan.
  6. Sell: Do whatever you can to get rid of these players.

This obviously isn’t an exact science, but it’s meant to represent an overall approach to squad going in to next season.

Goalkeepers

David de Gea

PSxG +/- +2.5 (11th in league)

A mistake-filled season for David de Gea but his new contract and £375k/wk wages make him unmovable. His PSxG +/- tells us he wasn’t as bad as he’s made out to be, but he wasn’t good either. He should start the season as the number 1, but a capable backup to push him is needed. If the mistakes continue, there can’t be a fear to drop him.

Role next season: First Choice

Dean Henderson

PSxG +/- +4.6 (6th in Premier League)

Sheffield United’s Young Player of the Year for the second year running. Definitely looks like he’s ready to step between the sticks at Old Trafford, but there’s a difference between playing for Sheffield United and playing for Manchester United. He’ll no doubt want to be playing every week but would probably be better off remaining at Old Trafford, playing the cup games, 3-4 Champions League group stage matches, and 6-8 Premier League matches to push De Gea... unless of course both goalkeepers’ form tell us Henderson should be playing more.

Role next season: First Team

Sergio Romero

Romero has one more year left on his contract. A very dependable backup, but it’s time to look towards the future. He’s a good pair of hands to call on in an emergency, but ultimately will have to step into more of a Lee Grant/mentor role as United prepare for the future.

Role next season: Reserve Player

Lee Grant

Made his United debut this year and that’s all there is to say about him. Just move into coaching already.

Role next season: Whatever it was this season

Defenders

Harry Maguire

Provided a massive upgrade to the middle of United’s defense. Going from 56 goals conceded to 36 doesn’t happen by accident. Telling Luke Shaw to “f*****g switch on” against Sheffield was an example of the value of his on-pitch leadership and in keeping United’s defense organized. Brought maturity and leadership to the squad, and it didn’t take him long to become the captain. Turning out to be a wise choice.

Role next season: First Choice (Captain)

Luke Shaw

Though there was nothing spectacular about Shaw this season, this is still far from José Mourinho’s Luke Shaw. The last few matches of the season showed what a valuable cog he is in United’s machine. United may need to upgrade the left-back position down the road, but they don’t need to this summer.

Role next season: First Choice

Aaron Wan-Bissaka

£50 million well spent. Provides lockdown defense on the right side to completely take opponents’ left wingers out of the game. Entered the season as a raw 21-year-old but went to work on his attacking game immediately. By Boxing Day there was noticeable improvement and eventually the plaudits would start coming.

His four assists are the joint most United have gotten in a Premier League season (along with Rafael in 2011/12) from a right-back since Gary Neville had four in 2003-04. Would have had more if not for his teammates’ poor finishing in January.

Role next season: First Choice

Brandon Williams

Started the season so far outside Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s plans he wasn’t even invited on the preseason tour. Managed to make his debut in September and was pushing Luke Shaw for a spot every week since December. Played in derbies, cup semifinals and fared well in all of them. Needs to work on his attacking from the left side, but a tremendous backup at both fullback positions.

Role next season: Squad Player

Victor Lindelöf

Dependable and reliable. Vulnerable in the air, but that that only directly lead to two goals conceded this season — both in August. Very composed on the ball and tends to get himself into good positions. United could upgrade here, but that would be expensive. Will need someone who can push Lindelöf and eventually overtake him.

Role next season: First Team

Eric Bailly

Bailly might be better than Lindelöf but has proven to be too injury prone to be reliable. He played more minutes in his first season at Old Trafford than he has in the next three years combined. Played less than 600 first team minutes this season before succumbing to another injury.

Role next season: First Team

Axel Tuanzebe

Tuanzebe made a few mistakes that young players tend to make, but did well overall in limited chances this year. It’s concerning that for the second straight year he missed a large chunk of time due to injuries. Seemed like whenever United needed to call on him he went down again.

Role next season: Squad player pushing for First Team

Ethan Laird

Laird showed there’s a lot to like in his cup cameos this season. Has a real chance at competing with Brandon Williams for those backup fullback minutes next season.

Role next season: Reserve Player

Diogo Dalot

Solskjaer leaving Dalot at home and only taking two fullbacks to the Europa League tie in LASK, as well as picking Timothy Fosu-Mensah, who hadn’t played in 16 months, over Dalot tells you all you need to know on how the manager rates the Portuguese right-back.

Role next season: Sell

Phil Jones

Jones was never as bad as the fans would make him out to be but there’s no more defending him. Nearly every time his name was called this year it ended in disaster.

However, this case isn’t as cut and dry as you’d think, namely because of the next player on this list, so let’s put a pin in this...

Teden Mengi

Simply put, Mengi was phenomenal this year. As a 17-year-old (he turned 18 April 30), he captained United’s side in the FA Youth Cup, but spent much of the year with United’s U23 team — making 14 starts in Premier League 2. He was an unused sub in United’s away fixture at Astana in the Europa League, and by the end of the season he was training with the first team.

By all accounts Mengi might be ready for first team football already, but the reality is he needs to go on loan. He’s simply not going to get the game time at United next year that he needs. Mengi’s talent may be comparable to Mason Greenwood’s but their situations are not. Greenwood is an attacker, someone who can come off the bench in every game. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer isn’t going to regularly sub off one of his centerbacks just to let Mengi play 10-15 minutes a game.

Mengi would likely be the fifth choice centerback for United. Even if he clawed his way up to fourth choice that still wouldn’t provide enough match time. Without that consistent first team experience it would be hard to ever confidently call upon an inexperienced 18-year-old, even in an emergency. Let him get first team minutes elsewhere, and look to sign a cheap depth CB.

Role next season: Loan

Phil Jones (cont’d)

So there it is. If Mengi is as far along in his development as many believe, he needs to get (at least) a year of first team football. Therefore United can’t count on him as a squad member for next season. If United can sign a low cost/high potential centerback for depth, then you can argue that Jones will be surplus. If they can’t, going into next season with only four centerbacks would be suicide, especially given the injury records of Bailly and Tuanzebe.

Role next season (If United sign a CB): Sell.
Role next season (If United don’t sign a CB): Reserve Player

Timothy Fosu-Mensah

A forgotten man who somehow managed to get three appearances in the final 10 days of the season. Fosu-Mensah acquitted himself well enough to get his contract extended by a year. He’s too defensive to be a fullback in United’s system, but the extra year will let them see if he can develop into a centerback or even a defensive midfielder.

Role next season: Reserve Player

Chris Smalling

Had a very successful campaign at Roma. Can’t play with the ball at his feet so he has no future under Solskjaer.

Role next season: Sell

Marcos Rojo