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Statistical Analysis: Assessing every Manchester United attacker

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In the third installment of our squad review series, we look at the forwards and strikers

Manchester United v Sheffield United - 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.

Marcus Rashford

Rashford had the breakout season everyone expected, finishing with 22 goals. Prior to his injury, he was the star man whom the attack was built around. After the lockdown he was put into more of a facilitator role, similar to how he was used under José Mourinho. Took him a while to adapt to the different role, but he ultimately finished with three goals and four assists post-lockdown. Needs to become far more clinical to truly hit his potential.

His production halted as soon as Luke Shaw went down injured as without any other attacking threat on the left side, teams were able to double and triple team him.

Role next season: First Choice

Anthony Martial

Had patches of great form this year and patches where he disappeared. Part of this can be attributed to reacquainting himself with the number 9 position at the start of the year. Came on strong post-lockdown but still needs to get to the gritty areas more consistently — he scored more than one goal in a match only twice this season. Seems like he needs to be pushed. From when Odion Ighalo made his debut, Martial didn’t play the full 90 minutes again until Southampton. He played the full amount of time in five of United’s next seven matches — as Solskjaer made it clear he didn’t see Ighalo as a viable goal threat — but only scored twice.

With no comparable striker on the market, the starting striker role is Martial’s, but next year will be a crucial year for him. He needs to prove that he can be an elite striker week-in week-out. The potential is clearly there, he just needs to show it more consistently.

Role next season: First Choice

Bruno Fernandes

Bruno’s introduction galvanized the squad and was the catalyst for United’s run in that ultimately saw them finish third in the Premier League. His ability on set pieces and leadership qualities alone make him worth his transfer fee. Drastically over performed his underlying numbers (4 NP Goals, 2.94 NPxG - 7 assists, 2.78 xA) is a concern, but not a big one.

He still has some areas for growth. Has a tendency to start trying to do everything himself when things aren’t going United’s way. Needs to improve his decision making as well.

United could really use a legitimate back-up to provide him with badly needed rest and to push him to become the world class player he’s capable of becoming.

Role next season: First Choice

Daniel James

James came in as a raw, pacy winger and certainly exceeded expectations early. Unfortunately, various circumstances lead to him being overplayed, which cut into his production. It was disappointing not to see him take any of his opportunities after the lockdown though. Overall a very good first year in the Premier League and at 22 years old will continue to improve.

For a player coming from the Championship, you’d have signed on the dotted line for 4 goals and 7 assists last June.

Role next season: Squad Player

Mason Greenwood

Excelled in the cups this season and was fantastic off the bench in the Premier League. Played limited minutes prior to lockdown, as to not expose him too much and because there are still limitations to his game.

Came back after the season restart as a completely new player giving United a formidable threat on the right side. Still not consistent enough to merit starting every game next year.

Role next season: First Team

Juan Mata

Signed a two year deal last year with the understanding that he’d be a bit-part player this year. Thirteen of his 21 starts came in the cups, which is where he excelled. Had some big appearances off the bench against Wolves and Copenhagen, but really failed to make an impact in the Premier League, recording just two assists — both coming against last placed Norwich City.

On his day Mata is still very useful, but how often he’s “on his day” seems to get fewer and fewer each year. That makes him hard to rely on but given next year’s condensed schedule, United can use the numbers.

Role next season: Reserve Player

Andreas Pereira and Jesse Lingard

Andreas Pereira and Jesse Lingard both play the same position and the same role (quite poorly). Having both of them in the squad is completely redundant. However there is use for that role in the squad.

For attacking players they’re both very good defensively, have loads of energy, and are very good when pressing. That’s useful if you need someone to come off the bench to help shore up a 2-0 lead. They’re both fully capable of playing on the counter attack but United will run into issues if Bruno Fernandes is injured and they aren’t playing on the counter attack.

Nevertheless, there is definitely a role in the squad for one of these two next season. But which one?

Andreas Pereira

Technically, Pereira is better on the ball with a much higher ceiling than Lingard. It’s just that we see those good moments that Pereira is capable of so infrequently that you can’t still believe he’ll ever hit his potential.

Two weeks ago, I would have said that Pereira is the likelier one to stay. He’s on a relatively new contract and, frankly, I didn’t think he’d have any suitors. But Valencia are allegedly interested in him and he’s reportedly pushing for the move as he wants more first team football. No complaints here.

Jesse Lingard

Lingard’s off the ball movement is exceptional, but his first touch this season would need to improve to even be as poor as Romelu Lukaku’s. When it comes to football IQ though, he’s miles ahead of Pereira.

He fired his agent this season and hired Mino Raiola, which is usually only something you do if you’re looking to move clubs. However, if United are going to let both Pereira and Lingard leave, they better be signing not one, but two midfielders to replace them. That doesn’t look likely.

Lingard’s standing with the fanbase has plummeted and it’s probably time for a change of scenery to help him find his game more consistently. But if you had to choose between another season of Lingard or Pereira, you’re probably looking at Lingard — for two reasons. One being you hope that the slight uptick in form at the very end of the season can be carried through to next year, and the second being that he simply may not have any suitors while Pereira might have one.

Role next season:
Pereira: Sell
Lingard: Reserve player
But really it could go either way.

Odion Ighalo

PL xG: 2.46
PL Shots: 7
PL Minutes: 69
PL Goals: 0

Ighalo came in and did exactly what United needed him to do: score goals in the cups, kill off games, and get Anthony Martial valuable rest. Great at coming on to kill off a game when in the lead, but didn’t score a single goal off the bench and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reluctance to bring him on tells you exactly how much faith the manager had in him when chasing a goal.

Those xG numbers suggest it’s not just bad luck, as Ighalo gets into good positions and got chances no matter how few minutes he played, but simply put he’s quite a poor finisher. Re-worked his contract to provide exactly the same thing until January.

Role next season: Squad Player (until January — then let him leave)

Tahith Chong

Never really impressed in the few chances he got with the senior team. Already secured the loan move that he desperately needed.

Role next season: Loan