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Who is Manchester United’s Best Player of 2021?

Searching for 2021 POTY...

Villarreal CF v Manchester United - UEFA Europa League Final Photo by Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

Before we get started I’ll put this here.

If you’re easily triggered by some things or by some players you might as well just x out of this post now. I’m going to say things that people don’t like.

Right. Now that that’s out of the way we’re looking for the best player of 2021. That’s a bit tough as 2021 encompasses two different seasons. What you did in the 2020 portion of the 2020-21 season doesn’t count, the clock starts on New Years Day. It also spans some summer tournaments where players were given the opportunity to shine because of their form in 2021, but this is a made up United award, so while summer performances may be noteworthy, they don’t help or hurt your case.

The question is, how do we define “best” player of 2021? Is it based on who scored the most goals (and created the most assists)? Who was available the most? Who is the most important? The truth of the matter is it’s a very vague term.

I put this question out on Twitter and got some good responses. We’re going to think of these as we judge each of the candidates.

I think each of these offered the same general concept while each one highlight their own unique trait - push you forward to win trophies, are you a net positive? Do you elevate the performance of your teammates? Those are all very interesting things to think about and should always be factored in.

Now let’s look at the candidates.

Bruno Fernandes

It would be foolish to start anywhere other than United’s player of the 2020-21 season. It’s also not a stretch to say that Bruno was a bit fortunate to come home with that award as there was a major difference between the 2020 version of Bruno Fernandes and the 2021 version.

Prior to New Years Day Bruno was putting up 0.45 non-penalty goals per 90 along with 0.52 assists per 90 in the Premier League. He was never going to maintain that pace all season but the dropoff in 2021 was pretty drastic going to a 0.14 npG/90 and 0.24 assists per 90 despite increasing his shot total. His xG per shot dropped from 0.8 to 0.6 while his touches per game also fell.

This season Bruno has looked a shell of himself ever since the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo. After an opening day hat trick, Bruno has added just two more goals and had the longest goal drought of his career since he was playing in Serie B. His shots and touches per 90 have continued to drop to lower than the Jan-June 2021 levels. As United’s primary creator his xA is also down, despite his shot creation remaining about steady.

All in all Bruno’s Premier League npG+A per 90 sits at just 0.44, the sixth best total for United. In all competitions that number goes up to 0.66 - a much more respectable number and it was Bruno’s free kick against Liverpool that saw United move on to the next round of the FA Cup.

What Bruno does have going for him is his availability. He’s always available and he’s always playing. While that does make it hard to look at how the team does without him (because there’s basically no sample) you don’t need numbers to know how important he is to the team. It may be a small sample but you don’t have to watch much of United without Bruno to know they are pretty impotent when he’s not on the pitch.

Now I know this next sentence is going to sound dumb and possibly get taken out context but - if anything - Bruno’s case for this made up award may suffer from being too available. . Coming off a non-stop season that essentially started in June 2020 along with added international matches Bruno always being fit and available (along with his eagerness to play) lead to him being way overplayed. By the second half of the 2020-21 season he was a shell of himself and it no doubt contributed to poor(er) performances. Once again he didn’t have a full summer off and it’s not a stretch to say the wear and tear on his legs has been having a negative impact on him this season.

Luke Shaw

Without question Luke Shaw was United’s best player over the second half of the 2020-21 season.

As one of the above tweets’ highlights, Shaw brings an additional advantage to the team in his ball progression, which became so pivotal given that United’s midfield could not do that. When Shaw wasn’t in the team United struggled to consistently drive the ball forward into the attacking third, and when United were chasing a goal Shaw was typically subbed on to replace the “attacking” left back Alex Telles. It got to the point where Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wasn’t even resting him in the 2nd leg of Europa League ties until halftime to ensure United had seen out the tie.

After New Years Day Shaw’s xA, touches, touches in the box, ball progression, and shot-creating actions all rose dramatically compared to their 2020 numbers. His fantastic form saw him get back into the England picture where he had a fantastic tournament and scored England’s lone goal in the final.

Unfortunately for Shaw, he hasn’t hit the same heights this season. His attacking and ball progression numbers are still ~good~ but certainly not at the level that he was at last season.

The lack of a summer break surely looks to be wearing on him as he’s battled poor form and injuries so far this season making for an overall solid 2021 but an inconsistent one.

Harry Maguire

Up until September Harry Maguire had one of the best c/v’s for this award based on both form and importance.

Over the second half of last season Maguire was one of the best center backs in the league. He was at the heart of a defense that went from conceding 1.53 goals per game on 1.26 xG during the 2020 portion of the 2020-21 season to 0.74 goals per game on just 0.89 xG from New Years Day until Maguire went down injured.

United’s big achilles heel was their (in)ability to defend set pieces, where Maguire was often targeted for criticism. In reality, United had gone from conceding 11 goals from set pieces in their first 34 Premier League games (and six in their first 19 PL matches of 2021 - both 0.32 per match) to conceding three in the final four matches (0.75 per match) of the season after Maguire got injured - plus another in the Europa League final.

In all of 2021 United are conceding 0.28 goals from set pieces per 90 when Maguire is on the pitch compared to 0.72 when he’s missing suggesting not just that the set piece problem is much more a structural problem than a Maguire one, and Maguire actually very much papers over the crack in that regard.

When looking back at those tweets the two things that stick out for Maguire is his general importance to the team and “does he bring an additional advantage.” You can question Maguire’s defensive abilities but what makes him undroppable is his ability in possession. Maguire’s ball carrying and long passing ability give United a different element. As do his abilities to step into midfield and keep the play alive in the attacking third.

Despite having the bulk of possession in the matches that Maguire has missed this year, when you take him out of the team United’s xG goes down (drastically - by roughly half a goal). That’s quite the drop. In addition to that the percentage of touches they take in their own third rises by almost seven percent while the number of touches United take in the attacking third drops proportionally.

It doesn’t take a genius to see this is the result of United massively struggling to push the ball forward when Maguire wasn’t on the pitch, something that was painfully obvious to the naked eye over the final games last season, the match against Everton, and really hurt the team in the Europa League final. Not getting any forward passing from the centerbacks makes the buildup slow and labored, and never forces a defense to get out of their block. Had Maguire played in the Europa League final, it’s not a stretch to say United probably would have won it.

Just like with the set pieces, the biggest part of Maguire’s role is papering over the cracks of everything else. United’s midfield doesn’t do a good job protecting the defense... Harry Maguire will take on the added burden. They don’t progress the ball from the back to the front? Maguire will handle that too.

Maguire’s biggest issue this year was his desire to play at all costs. He rushed back from injury to play in Euro 2020 where he was excellent. As a result he didn’t properly rest ahead of the 2021 campaign and looked knackered. He also picked up an injury in September that he once again rushed back for. He returned a few weeks later and he was clearly still injured. He never should have been selected to play against Leicester and Liverpool but lack of options and the need for his on-ball game were probably very present in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s mind when he rushed him back to the team. The result was some of the worst form of Maguire’s career. In addition to that, as United’s “structure” crumbled more and more early this season, Maguire got exposed more and more and unsurprisingly struggled as he was asked to do more than he can handle on top of already being injured and already battling some poor form.

Maguire has since turned a corner and is rounding back to his best. What he’s done over the majority of the year is far more indicative of the player he is then that poor stretch in early autumn, but it is surely enough to knock him out of the running for this award.

Paul Pogba

Though some people will never accept it for reasons like not being able to separate an agent from a player the bottom line is Paul Pogba was one of United’s best players in 2021.

Paul Pogba started off 2021 by winning the penalty for United’s game winning goal on New Years Day against Aston Villa. He then fired in the game winning goal against Burnley before getting three of United’s final four shots in their bid to win late at Anfield (and creating two of the three before that), before firing in another winner at Craven Cottage later that week.

Pogba hobbled off the pitch a few weeks later against Everton and it was immediately apparent how badly United missed him. As soon as he walked off the pitch, United’s attack - and fainting hopes of a title challenge - went down the drain.

The case against Pogba is simple. He’s missed 11 of United’s 39 Premier League in 2021 matches due to injury. That’s nearly a third which raises very valid questions about his availability.

The case for him is what he’s done when he’s on the pitch. In terms of production Pogba’s 0.61 Premier League npG+A per 90 trails only Edinson Cavani for most productive player. That’s pretty good considering that roughly half his minutes came playing as a deep midfielder where scoring and assisting isn’t his primary responsibility. In all competitions that figure drops to a still respectable 0.55 though Pogba did score the winner against AC Milan to send United through, and assisted Edinson Cavani’s goal six minutes into the second leg against Granada to put that tie to bed.

You can argue those production numbers are inflated thanks to his four assist match against Leeds and there’s merit to that but also a separate conversation. Going back to the above tweets, Pogba’s real case comes from “did his team miss him when he didn’t play?” and “does he elevate his teammates (or not)?” The answer to that is emphatically, “yes.”

(Disclaimer: We’re going to use some on-off stats here. I know there are people that hate those because they often lack a lot of context and have tons of variables. My goal here is color in the context and control for as many variables as we can. The thing I like about on-off stats is it often highlights areas where a player makes a team better or worse, and you can then ask the question “what is this player doing (or not doing) to make his teammates better - or worse?)

The bottom line is, United have won a lot more often when Paul Pogba has played this year than when he hasn’t. Beyond the results (United have just won three in a row with three very non-dominant performances that all easily could have went either way) is the difference in their underlying numbers when Pogba has played vs when he hasn’t.

While that left column is based on matches where Pogba is in the starting XI or not the right column is calculated down to the minute whether he started or came off the bench. Pogba also has one of the truest samples around in terms of who he’s playing with (with Ronaldo, without him) or against (matches vs the top six or not).

United are simply better in almost every category when Pogba is on the pitch compared to when he isn’t. It’s also crazy when you see how much those “without” numbers are inflated by one match against a 10, and later 9, men Southampton side.

Sure there have been matches where Pogba has been ineffective and United have been unable to win but the blame in those matches seems to only fall onto Pogba when United’s other stars also didn’t perform.

Unlike Bruno, Pogba also benefitted from actual rotation. He seemed to be the only ‘star’ Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was ever willing to drop - or rotate - which helped keep him fresh. Therefore when he was on the pitch he was often able to perform to the highest of his abilities.

Fred

United’s midfield engine has been getting some more respect recently but the reality is he’s been putting in the performances all year long. Fred’s stellar play in the first half of 2021 saw him climb back into the picture with Brazil, where he ended up being a first choice starter in their run to the Copa America final.

For United he’s been Mr. Reliable, starting 31 of the team’s 39 Premier League matches in 2021. Only four times in 2021 has he been unavailable for selection; the Europa League final and the three matches right after international breaks. United won just one of those four matches and that came against a horrifically bad Newcastle side. Like Maguire, had Fred been available to start the Europa League final, the result is probably different.

Fred is a true midfielder so he’s never going to have the production numbers to plead a case for him. For him he’s always going to be measured by the impact he has on his team and teammates when he’s on the pitch. Again let’s peak at how those numbers break down.

Shouldn’t come as a surprise that United’s attack seems to get better when Fred isn’t on the pitch. Fred himself isn’t really an attacking player and he’s often deployed next to other midfielders who lack creativity. There is a massive drop in non-penalty goals against when he’s on the pitch compared to when he’s not, but the similarity in xGA - in fact the xGA is higher - suggests he benefits from some combination of good luck, bad finishing, and good goalkeeping.

What does jump off the page is the record and point per game when Fred is playing compared to when he’s not - especially considering that Fred has started every match against a top six side in 2021, and the numbers without him come exclusively against lesser clubs. It also stands to reason that those matches where United let Chelsea and City have all the ball and pummel them with shots are going to impact the other numbers. So I took another look and recalculated the numbers without those matches against the “top six” (I also took out the match against 10/9 man Southampton for obvious reasons).

Again, not a surprise that those attacking numbers aren’t great. You don’t even have to do the math, a quick glance at the numbers and you can easily see that United’s xG per shot drops significantly when he’s on the pitch. That’s a combination of Fred’s ability, who he’s playing with, and that generally when he’s not playing it means the more creative/attacking Paul Pogba is.

What really jumps off the page though are those defensive numbers - particularly the shots against and shot differential when Fred is on the pitch. Combine those numbers with FBref, which has Fred in the 94th percentile for pressures, 93rd for pressure regains, 98th for blocks and 99th percentile for passes blocked over the past 365 days, and it really paints a picture of how important Fred is defensively. He simply doesn’t let opposing teams build attacks and keeps the ball moving to United’s good players.

What Fred’s case for this fake award has that none of the other players have: consistency. He’s been playing like this all year long.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, it really comes down to how you define “best” and what quality is most important to you.

If it’s simply about goal production, then it’s a matter of is this a Premier League award or all competitions? If it’s the Premier League, the answer is Paul Pogba. If it’s all competitions, it’s Bruno Fernandes. If it’s about who does the team miss the most when they’re gone, it’s between Pogba and Fred. If the award was “most available player of 2021” then Bruno Fernandes takes it easily. If it’s “most consistent” the answer skews towards Fred.

But really, it’s a combination of all those intangibles. That’s what makes it tough.

Poll

Who is United’s Player of 2021?

This poll is closed

  • 43%
    Bruno Fernandes
    (119 votes)
  • 18%
    Luke Shaw
    (52 votes)
  • 3%
    Harry Maguire
    (10 votes)
  • 9%
    Paul Pogba
    (26 votes)
  • 24%
    Fred
    (67 votes)
274 votes total Vote Now