Manchester United’s 2nd place finish and 81 point haul seems to have masked a few problems the side faces. They had the 6th highest xGD last season, with both their xG for and against being the 6th best in the league – or worst out the ‘top six mini league’.
Conceding 1.26 xG per game isn’t great, they gave away the 8th fewest chances in the league and the 7th fewest chances in the danger zone in the league. Now, this doesn’t sound terrible, but when your ambition is to win a title, it’s pretty worrying. They only had 1.53 chances more than the opposition per game.
This is even more worrying when it’s mixed with a typically defensive manager. If United had a firing attack but were leaky at the back it feels like it’d be more reasonable but, despite possessing good individual attackers, United’s xG for was just as close to Crystal Palace’s as it was Tottenham’s and Arsenal’s. To be blunt, what’s the point of having a defensive coach when you don’t have a very good defence? What’s the reasoning behind keeping a defensive coach if they don’t make you good defensively?
United’s defensive numbers are the worst of the top six but they were bailed out by an extraordinary year from goalkeeper David de Gea. They conceded just 50.1% of their expected goals tally, the biggest over performance by any side by some distance. The next closest was Burnley conceding 66.4% of their total. You could argue United don’t need a great defence if they have such a great ‘keeper, they did concede the 2nd least goals last season after all, but why? If United seriously improved their defence, reducing the chances they give the opposition, and had a great ‘keeper they could be great.
Despite this, there are a lot of positives for United. They have a good range of attackers who are all at good ages. Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Romelu Lukaku, Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard all had productive years while still all being 25-years-old or younger. Add in the experienced options of Juan Mata and Alexis Sanchez and it could be a seriously great attack. The table below shows their xG + xA p90 last season.
These numbers are impressive, particularly given they come playing under a defensive manager. There’s also the caveat that only two of them played over 2000 minutes, but given there’s lots of options for rotation that isn’t too surprising either. Pogba’s numbers are particularly impressive from his deeper role.
United feel as though they also need serious work in the transfer market.
To compare United and City for a moment, since Mourinho joined United their net spend has been ~-£315m, while City’s has been ~-£407m. Spread across the three seasons this means City’s net spend is only £30m more per season – which doesn’t seem like a huge amount. Yet, in that time City have transformed their squad to an older one not suitable for their managers football, to one that is a great age and fits the style perfectly.
United’s squad meanwhile still feels a bit thrown together. After three summer windows with Mourinho United still have two 30 something converted wingers playing full-back and don’t seem to have a preferred centre-back pairing. While their attack and midfield seems settled, their back four needs some work with Eric Bailly being the only option who is guaranteed to start.
After looking so far behind their rivals last summer, this was a big summer for United. It felt as though they needed to go out and address their defence and attempt to close the gap between them and City.
I don’t really know anything about United’s two summer signings and have no detailed data on the leagues they come from, so this is going to be very short.
25-year-old Fred comes highly rated and should be a useful addition in midfield for United. Changing from a 4-2-3-1 shape to more of a 4-3-3 with a midfield of, say, Fred, Pogba and Nemanja Matic could help make United more balanced and better defensively. The only problem is that they lose one of their attackers.
Their second signing was 19-year-old Diogo Dalot from Porto. Dalot is supposed to be a highly rated, attacking right-back with big potential. It’ll be interesting to see whether he can make an impact and get some starting minutes this season.
That’s all I can really say about these two signings.
Selling Daley Blind for £14.4m is a good bit of business. He seems unlikely to feature regularly and (I think) he was in the last year of his deal. Getting £6.6m for Sam Johnstone is also good business, while selling backup ‘keepers for pretty big fees seems to be a theme this summer.
Should they have done any more business?
I think United should have revamped their back four this window. Dalot offers potential and Luke Shaw is somehow still only 23-years-old, but getting three peak age defenders should have been on United’s agenda this summer – a new centre-back partner for Bailly, plus two new full-backs. The problem is there doesn’t seem to have been a whole lot out there.
Toby Alderweireld seemed to be a signing they liked the look of, but in the end couldn’t get over the line. Alderweireld would have been a great partner for Bailly, although the fees knocking around seem pretty big for a 29-year-old in the final year of their contract. It may be a situation where United need to bite the bullet and pay up, even though the long-term value may not be all that great.
Moving on two of Chris Smalling, Marcos Rojo or Phil Jones could raise close to what Spurs would have probably accepted for Alderweireld, while still leaving them 24-year-old Victor Lindelof, one of the aforementioned three and Eric Bailly. Alderweireld defensive ability and great passing range would have been a huge asset for United.
At full-back Matteo Darmian should have also been moved on and possibly Luke Shaw if Mourinho doesn’t view him as his starting left-back. Shaw is still only 23-years-old but is in the last year of his deal and seems to have a strange relationship with his manager.
One option at right-back could have been Cedric Soares from Southampton. Turning 27-years-old at the end of the month Cedric has been reliable for Southampton over recent seasons, while offering some threat going forward. He has two years left on his deal and given Southampton’s poor campaign you’d imagine if a club like United came calling both player and club would be interested. Cedric could have a few years at right-back before making way for Dalot to move through.
Another option could have been Elseid Hysaj from Napoli. Hysaj is 24-years-old and was an important part of Sarri’s Napoli who conceded the 2nd lowest xG in Europe’s top five leagues last season. PSG’s Thomas Meunier may have been worth looking into, with concerns about PSG and financial fair play, plus a new manager, there’s a chance PSG would be willing to sell Thomas Meunier. Meunier had the highest xG + xA p90 of defenders in Europe’s top five leagues last season and with the FFP concerns and two years left on his deal they could have got him for a fair price.
At left-back there are also a few interesting names. Philipp Max made a lot of headlines for Augsburg last season with his great creativity numbers, having the highest xA p90 of defenders in Europe’s top five leagues last season – mainly from his crossing and set piece taking ability. Jerome Roussillon is another interest left-back. He had the 4th highest xA p90 in Europe’s top five leagues last season, was in the last year of his contract while Montpellier had some great xG against numbers. In the end he moved to Wolfsburg for £7.2m and it’ll be interesting to see how he’ll get on.
There’s the more established name of Alex Sandro from Juventus, though he may have cost a big sum, while Wendell from Bayer Leverkusen and Jose Gaya from Valencia are two left-backs who seemed to look promising a couple of seasons ago, and while they don’t look to have kicked on in the way people hoped, they still have some respectable numbers this season.
Some of these may not be good enough for United, and there’s probably lots more names if I dug deeper, but to not improve the defence at all – outside of Dalot – when their defensive numbers were the worst of sides in the top six seems a strange move from United.
It’s not a great window from United. It’s not because the signings are bad, but because they’ve seem to have failed to address their weaknesses.
Not improving the defence seems a mistake and not being ruthless when it comes to not moving on players who don’t seem good enough isn’t great either. If United repeat their performances from last season they’ll once again be relying on the performances of David de Gea to help them.
While this could happen and they can over perform their underlying numbers once more, based on the defensive numbers of last season and how City, Liverpool and Tottenham were quite far ahead of them last season plus (except for Tottenham) have strengthened this summer, it seems like it’s going to be United, Chelsea and Arsenal battling for the final spot in the top four – though Chelsea could be promising if they can take to Sarri’s style quickly.
Honestly, I feel as though United should have been bold and the move they should have made is that of a new manager. Mourinho has had two seasons, spent a good sum of money and United still don’t look any closer to winning their first post-Ferguson title.
This article was written with the aid of StrataData, which is property of Stratagem Technologies. StrataData powers the StrataBet Sports Trading Platform, in addition to StrataBet Premium Recommendations.