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Manchester United Player of the Season

Who is your player of the season?

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Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images

This was a season that everyone associated with Manchester United would like to forget. Other than maybe beating rivals Leeds United twice I can’t think of a single positive about this season, which is why even thinking of a player of the season seems like a complete waste of time.

While it’s true that there’s basically no one on this team did anything that can be considered worthy of “winning” a player of the season award, these awards are still sponsored and therefore someone has to get it.

That’s the thing about a player of the season award, you don’t have to actually be good to get it, you just need to be better than everyone else. It’s sort of like running away from a hungry bear in that sense, you don’t need to be the fastest in the group, just don’t be the slowest.

Here are the nominees:

Cristiano Ronaldo

The argument for Ronaldo is obvious. He scored the most goals (and the asinine argument of “where would we be without his goals?). Ronaldo scored 24 times in all competitions and 18 times in the Premier League.

The thing is, of course he scored all those goals, he’s the striker. He’s the one who plays in the position where the most chances are going to come to and it’s literally his job to be scoring goals. He’s also playing in a team that rebuilt itself from one that had a dynamic attack, to one that was built around creating the bulk of their chances for their striker, resulting in Ronaldo monopolizing the scoring chances.

Therefore scoring the most on the team doesn’t actually mean he did his job better than everyone else did theirs.

As Ronaldo is someone who feels that sitting on the bench watching his teammates play against Young Boys would be “detrimental to him” or that being dropped against Manchester City is beneath him. As he’s someone that commands a salary of £500k/week because of his stature then all of that should factor in to how we judge his performance on the season.

From that lens, is 18 goals that many? If I told you back in August Ronaldo would finish the season on 18 goals you’d either call me crazy or you’d assume he missed at least 15 games. When Ronaldo was signed he was being hailed as someone who guarantees you 20-25 goals in a season.

Ronaldo failed to score 20 league goals in a season. Since making the jump from exciting winger to more of a goal scorer in 2005-06 this was Ronaldo’s worst league campaign since 2008-09, his last one at United.

Ronaldo’s 0.55 non-penalty goals per 90 puts him a respectable sixth in the league but on the other hand it’s not higher than the 0.65 Edinson Cavani put up last season (albeit less minutes) or the 0.58 Anthony Martial had in 2019-20.

That’s a bit of an eyebrow raiser when you factor in his role on the team and how this team is set up. When Ronaldo was on the pitch, he was taking roughly a third of United’s shots, a distribution way higher than anyone else managed in the last two years. When he was on the pitch United were also taking more shots per game than they were the last two years and they were better shots too. More shots and a higher distribution of those shots going his way, it’s only natural to expect more goals.

When thinking of Ronaldo’s season it’s only natural to think back to that five game stretch in February where United were taking 18 shots per match and Ronaldo was taking over 30 percent of them. He finished that period with one goal against an xG of 3.1 and United dropped six points, leaving them just two points clear of fifth. Put a few more wins in there and would United have suffered a massive collapse at the end of the season when they threw in the towel once the top four was out of reach? It’s a fair question.

Sure other players missed chances in those matches but when the team is designed to create the best chances for one player, you need that one player to deliver. There’s also the variance that comes with finishing and Ronaldo evened out over the season. He finished with 15 goals against an xG of 14.2.

The thing about xG is it covers all players, so an average one would have been expected to score 14 goals from the shots Ronaldo got this season. It’s fair to expect Ronaldo to perform better than the average player. In this regard, he didn’t.

Like Bruno and Pogba this season, Ronaldo’s production came in bulk, 10 of his 18 Premier League goals came across four matches. In the Premier League this season United scored 1.36 goals per 90 with Ronaldo on the pitch and 1.49 when he wasn’t. Across all competitions it was 1.38 vs 1.36, so where would they be without Ronaldo’s goals? Most likely in the exact same place!

Ronaldo’s ‘guaranteed goals’ were supposed to elevate the team to the next level. That very much did not happen.

David de Gea

David de Gea started the season by giving us glimpses of the player who won United’s player of the year award four times in five seasons. The spectacular saves were back and he was even saving some penalties. Was he United’s best performer this season though?

How you feel about how David de Gea performed this season likely aligns with how you view the game on a more macro level.

There’s the Jose Mourinho way which is more passive. He believes that it’s bad to have the ball because if you have the ball you can make a mistake with it and your opponents can capitalize on that mistake and hurt you. On the other end of the spectrum is Pep Guardiola. He believes that the best thing you can do is have possession of the ball because if you have the ball that means your opponent doesn’t and then they can’t score.

Those views on the game will impact how you feel about other issues on a more micro level, in this particular case it’s the shot stopping vs shot prevention debate.

Judging by the way most United fans look at their defensive issues and pin the blame on their centerbacks, it’s safe to say a lot of them fall in the shot stopping camp rather than shot prevention whose aim is exactly what it sounds like, prevent shots before they could even occur.

Modern goalkeeping in 2022 is all about shot-prevention. David de Gea is unquestionably a shot stopper.

He finished the season with a PSxG-G of +7.9. In other words, put an average keeper in there for the shots De Gea faced this season and you would expect United to concede roughly eight more goals than they actually did. Those numbers are very good and De Gea’s 0.21 PSxG-G per 90 was second best in the league.

It’s also a tale of two havles of a season. Over the first 19 games of the season, De Gea was putting up a +0.45 PSxG-G, truly sensational shot stopping numbers. That wouldn’t last the season though. Over the back half of the season De Gea’s PSxG-G dropped to just +0.01, saving exactly what someone would be expected to save.

United ended up conceding 51 non-penalty goals on 50.8 non-penalty expected goals against. Exactly what was expected. That’s not a mark against De Gea but rather a testament to their defense as a whole.

That’s where De Gea comes in. This is a team game and when a team has weaknesses you need to make changes elsewhere to help cover for those weaknesses. United’s weakness was how unstructured they were in midfield and defense. They needed to find ways to relieve the defense of the constant pressure they were under.

David de Gea did not oblige. Where United needed a goalkeeper who could come off his line, allow the team to play more compact, and sweep up behind the back line, his eight defensive actions outside the penalty area is laughably low.

De Gea’s distribution this season was terrible. He completed just 70.9 percent of his passes - his lowest since the Jose Mourinho era. He often didn’t provide an outlet for his defenders when they were under pressure. When they gave him the ball he’d either hoof it out of play or just hoof it long - rarely completing it. He’d often pass to his defenders in tight spots giving them no options other than to hoof it long. United’s forwards are not the kind of players who are going to win aerial duels so kicking it long usually meant you were giving the ball back to the opposition and these turnovers often resulted in shots on De Gea’s goal less than 60 seconds later.

De Gea saved a lot of shots this season, but that’s only one part of being a goalkeeper. How many saves would he have had to make if he was just better in other areas of his game? How much of this did he bring upon himself?

Then on top of it all he has the audacity to come out and say the team was bad this year but he thought he played well? I usually don’t give a care about what players ever say but that one was bad.

Jadon Sancho

Jadon Sancho was never going to put up the 17 goals 16 assists he recorded in 2019-20 or the 11 goals 8 assists he put up in 2020-21. There are so many reasons why including different play styles (the “Bundesliga Tax”), over performance on xG/xA and especially the fact that so much of assists depends on your teammates actually finishing their chances.

Despite benefitting from over-performance, Sancho’s underlying numbers were still ridiculous and even if his underlying’s dropped by 30 percent, he’d still be providing United with exactly what they needed at a really high level.

The thing about Sancho is, his underlying numbers are so consistently strong because of everything else that Sancho does. In that regard, Sancho was still as advertised.

Sancho this season was the victim of a completely dysfunctional and unbalanced team. That resulted in United asking him to do a lot more than he was asked to do at Borussia Dortmund. His defensive actions this year were up, he was touching the ball in his own third a lot more, and overall he was touching the ball further away from the opponents goal. All that work took him away from doing what he does best, creating chances in front of the opponents goal.

Having said all that, Sancho still outperformed his teammates in all those areas. His 13.48 progressive actions per 90 (passes and carries) is second only to Nemanja Matic.

Considering United this season were built around getting the ball into the box and creating chances for Ronaldo, you would want someone who is really good at both getting the ball into the box and creating shots.

No one was better at getting the ball into the box than Sancho. HIs 4.45 successful box entires per 90 were 0.9 better than the next best player for United (Bruno). His 3.88 shot-creating actions per 90 trailed only Bruno and his 0.20 xA per 90 lagged only behind Bruno and Pogba.

This was undoubtedly a poor season from Sancho, and yet he was still that good. Sancho did his job arguably as well as any other United player and then some. Despite that, it would still be a stretch to call him the player of the season.

Fred

This was finally the season where Fred got his due.

The Brazilian was much maligned in his time at Old Trafford for a variety of reasons. He had a terrible first season in England and first impressions go a long way. His passing isn’t as good as his ambition. Fred’s at his best when he moves the ball quickly within one or two touches, when he has to hold it is when he runs into problems. This would often be exposed when playing next to a midfielder who’s passing was even more limited (McTominay) against teams that were more than happy to let him have the ball.

And oh yea, he can’t shoot for shit.

Time and time again Fred would find the ball rolling out to him at the top of the box only for him to blast it anywhere but on target. That’s a pretty big thing when it comes to how people view midfielders.

But shooting isn’t Fred’s game. He’s a high energy 8 who thrives at being a menace to play against. He’s a high energy ball winner in midfield who excels at disrupting opponents play.

This year Fred’s been getting a lot more credit from a lot of areas, mostly because he added production to his game to the tune of four goals and four assists.

The reality was, Fred wasn’t doing anything different. He took 10 fewer shots this year compared to last year. His xG per 90 remained the same, his shot-creating actions per 90 went from 2.52 to 2.53, while his NPxG+xA per 90 actually dropped from 0.17 to 0.15. He simply got hot and found the net a few more times and his teammates happened to finish more of the half-chances chances he created this year.

The goals and assists will attract more attention from the masses but United aren’t relying on goals and assists from Fred. They count on Fred to provide them with everything else and in that regard he continued to deliver.

Fred continued to be an elite midfielder out of possession. He scored in the 93rd percentile of midfielders on pressures, 93rd in total blocks, 95th in blocked shots, 82nd in passes blocked, and 80th in tackles + interceptions. Those numbers are actually down from a season ago, but it shouldn’t come as any surprise that anyone on United wasn’t as good as they were a year ago.

Winner

Again, it’s hard to say anyone this season merits a player of the year award. You have to ask which player did their job better than anyone else?

In that regard, it’s hard to argue that anyone did their job - and then some - as well as Fred did his this season. And you know what? Fred also showed this season that he’s simply not good enough to be a week in week out starter for Manchester United.

I mean no midfielder should be starting every match if United want to win trophies and in the right setup I wouldn’t moan if he’s in the team (he’s plenty good enough to start 25-30 matches in all comps) but first choice United simply have to get better. Both things can be true.

Fred is a really good role player, but he should not be your Player of the Season. If he is, well, then your season is going to look a lot like the one United just had.

Poll

Who is Manchester United’s Player of the Season?

This poll is closed

  • 42%
    Cristiano Ronaldo
    (198 votes)
  • 28%
    David de Gea
    (133 votes)
  • 5%
    Jadon Sancho
    (25 votes)
  • 18%
    Fred
    (88 votes)
  • 5%
    Other
    (24 votes)
468 votes total Vote Now