How Mourinho could evolve United’s tactics this season

August 20, 2016 Tags: , Reads 6 comments
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Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a man used to the spotlight. The Swede eventually stole the headlines with two goals against Southampton on Friday night, but Paul Pogba was firmly the centre of everyone’s attention during Manchester United’s first game at Old Trafford this Premier League season. The Frenchman’s integration could encourage manager José Mourinho to change his approach this season.

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The Pogba impact

August 9, 2016 Tags: , Reads 3 comments
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That Paul Pogba is returning to Old Trafford is not surprising. Despite the protracted nature of the transfer, Manchester United has made steady progress throughout the process. Transfers of this magnitude, and it is a world record at €110 million, are multifaceted and difficult to pull off. Much credit goes to Ed Woodward for pulling this off, though one suspects it was José Mourinho’s dogged will that really facilitated the trade.

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Data Rant: assessing Mourinho’s transfer strategy

June 18, 2016 Tags: , , Data 8 comments
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It is often beneficial to look at the Premier League as a whole to see where Manchester United stands and to identify any general trends. Last season was an unmitigated disaster, even with the FA Cup victory, and lessons should be learned to avoid the further ‘Liverpoolization’ of the club. In earlier Data Rant columns, statistical theory was not strictly observed – emphasizing intuition and broad trends above technicalities. However, with more advanced techniques we can get a more precise picture.

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Rant writers on the year ahead

, , and January 1, 2015 Tags: , , Reads 24 comments
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Say goodbye to 2014. It was a year that started horribly for Manchester United with a home defeat to Tottenham Hotspur and ended with the club on the up, albeit with a draw against the same opposition. Hello, then, to 2015: a year in which United will, well, we’re not quite sure… but United Rant’s writers peaked into the crystal ball and had a guess…

In the end United will be short – well short – of the title contenders this season, although the improvement in results has been really good since November. By May United might be 10 points adrift of the title winners, which will probably be Chelsea, although José Mourinho’s side could suffer for lack of squad depth.

It’s been so long since United put together a decent FA Cup run. Surely this is the year for United to have a real crack at it, although the loss to MK Dons demonstrates that United’s trip to Yeovil Town next week is going to be no easy ride.

The summer market is critical, although it’s hard to see the Glazers signing off on another £150 million spend. That said few predicted last summer’s splurge either. Louis van Gaal could really do with a couple of high-quality defenders: a right-back as cover or replacement for the perennially injured Rafael da Silva, and an experienced central defender who is not prone to injury!

United could do with another combative midfielder. Marouane Fellaini was supposed to be it, but he’ll never be good enough at Champions League level. Kevin Strootman is the obvious name, of course, although Arturo Vidal would be the ‘gold-medal’ level signing. Then there’s the question of what happens with Radamel Falcao and Robin van Persie. It’s hard to see both at the club beyond the summer.

There will be some departures too. None of United’s defenders, bar Luke Shaw and Marcos Rojo, are safe. Neither is Antonio Valencia or, sadly, Ander Herrera and Juan Mata. It’ll be a very bleak day if David de Gea leaves for Real Madrid, but it’s not unlikely.

In the end Van Gaal’s philosophy will be attacking, possession-based football in which United dominate matches. The Dutchman simply doesn’t have the personnel for it to be fully implemented just yet. If that’s still the case after next summer the club will have let Van Gaal down.

United will push City and Chelsea much harder for the title in 2015/15. Expect United to be very close to the top by this time next year.

Second half of the season XI: De Gea; Rafael, Jones, Rojo, Shaw; Herrera, Carrick, Di Maria; Mata; Falcao, Rooney
Next season’s XI: De Gea; Aurier, Jones, Hummels, Shaw; Herrera, Vidal; Di Maria, Mata, Januzaj; Falcao

By May 2015 United will probably have secured third spot. Even though United has overtaken some pretty serious point differences in the second half of the season over the years the team will finish a dozen points behind City and Chelsea. A nice FA Cup run is overdue and it would be great to win it and break a good record for a change.

Next summer’s transfer market will bring one or two solid defenders. If the Dutchman delivers results this season United won’t return to Glazeronomics just yet, even though, sadly, it looks inevitable in the long run. There won’t be another Angel Di Maria/Radamel Falcao “holy s**t, that’s actually happening!” moment this summer, but it’s always welcome.

Some players will leave too and that’s looooong overdue. It’s not good to call United’s players ‘dead wood,’ but, unfortunately, that’s what some of them have become. Let’s hope Van Gaal shows strength of character and good judgement here. Whether David De Gea stays is more important though. Don’t break our hearts, Dave. Please, pretty please? It would even be worth paying Anderson to stay and be the fool to your king. Perhaps that was the plan all along!

In 2015 we will discover what Van Gaal’s philosophy really is… or not. The Dutchman can be quite pragmatic if necessary. Maybe there’s no philosophy as such; just pragmatism and some common sense. The greatest trick that our Devil has ever pulled was to convince everyone that the philosophy exists. The hope is that Van Gaal sorts out the defence – the transfer window should help – sticks with a specific formation, and gets some luck with injuries. And then “let it flyyyy.”

After all that next season United will finally become a title contender again – at least, that’s the plan. Of course, football can be cruel sometimes. As Liverpool demonstrated ‘up’ is not the only way after a good season. Fans should remain wary until the league is United’s again. It’s hard to believe that it has been only been two seasons since the last title, but so far Van Gaal looks like a man who can bring the “not arrogant, just better” attitude back. Here’s to that!

Second half of the season XI: De Gea; Carrick, Jones, Rojo; Rafael , Blind, Herrera, Young; ;Di Maria; Falcao, Rooney
Next season’s XI: De Gea; Rafael, Hummels, Jones, Shaw; Bale, Blind, Herrera, Di Maria; Rooney, Falcao

United will have made the Champions League by the end of the season. City will probably win the Premier League after fatigue catches up with Chelsea given the Londoners’ lack of rotation so far. The winter transfer window might bring United a solid right-back, which may help a push for the title, though probably not enough. United has produced in big games this season and other ‘big’ clubs are either in a free fall or still in Europe. Van Gaal has historically done well in cup competitions and an FA Cup victory is definitely possible this season.

Next summer’s transfer market will bring a classy right-back and a world-class winger. All that Gareth Bale talk is indicative of something and Borussia Dortmund’s Marco Reus is also available. Herrera may end up in jail and Fellaini is no long-term option – expect Van Gaal’s golden boy Kevin Strootman to come to Old Trafford. Despite popular opinion a new central defender is not priority next summer. United will defend with organisation and not personnel and there are few established defenders to suit van Gaal’s high line anyway.

Anderson and probably Chris Smalling will leave the club – the Brazilian’s contract is up anyway. Jonny Evans will probably survive given his ‘left-footedness.’ Up front Ramadel Falcao will leave – James Wilson is promising. United will have to cut back what has become one of the biggest wage bills in Europe to clear for new arrivals. Falcao simply hasn’t performed. Antonio Valencia will be free to leave as well, though his high wages will be a stumbling block. Ashley Young will probably survive since he can fill in at any position on either flank.

In the next year Van Gaal’s philosophy will emerge and it’ll look something like Bayern Munich’s when he was manager there: a 4-2-3-1 with a focus on the flanks. It is indicative that Van Gaal has heavily relied on width despite playing winger-less systems, with Young and Valencia used as wing-backs. Wayne Rooney is very much like Thomas Muller. The German isn’t all that gifted technically. Van Gaal may even start playing a Bayern style 4-2-3-1 this season if Adnan Januzaj can find some form.

Next season United will win the Premier League. There will be no screwing about when the 2015/16 season begins. That extra 10 points in first 10 games of 2015/16 will bring the trophy back to Old Trafford. United probably won’t have the defence to hold off Barcelona or Real Madrid, but a new world-class winger may see the Reds sneak into semi-finals of the Champions League.

Counterattacking is in vogue and van Gaal is one of ‘counter-counter’ pioneers. Van Gaal will certainly relish the challenge.

Second half of this season XI: De Gea; Coleman, Jones, Rojo, Shaw; Blind, Fellaini; Januzaj, Rooney, Di Maria; Van Persie
Next season’s XI: De Gea; Coleman, Jones, Rojo, Shaw; Strootman, Blind; Januzaj, Rooney, Di Maria; Van Persie

United will finish the season, probably, in third place. Maybe second. As Ed said on the podcast last week, expectations have been reset and finishing fourth from here would be kind of disappointing. We’ll have seen a number of much better performances, and won the derby at Old Trafford. The FA Cup tie with Yeovil is slightly worrying – we might lose in the third round!

Next summer’s transfer market will be a slight anti-climax after last season’s. There won’t be a marquee signing to rival Di Maria or Falcao, but United will add sensibly in defence and midfield. Right-back is the position that most needs to be addressed with Rafael injured all the time. At least the injured centre backs have cover.

Some will leave too, including, sadly, Falcao. I have rarely wanted a player to work out as much as Falcao at United, but it seems not to going that way. He’s got four months to save the dream. One of Smalling, Phil Jones or Jonny Evans will leave — each good enough for United, none fit enough for United.

In 2015 we will discover what Van Gaal’s philosophy really is … and it’s that Christmas really is the most wonderful time of the year. Grinning from ear to ear when lighting the tree, giving the players the day off on Christmas, handing out presents. He loves it. Seriously though, his philosophy has changed over the years, and the best short hand for where it currently sits is something along the lines of ‘play the best, most attractive, football you can with the players at your disposal.’

After all that, next season, United will win the league. AGAIN!

Second half of this season XI: De Gea; Rafael, Jones, Rojo, Shaw; Herrera, Carrick, Di Maria; Rooney; Falcao, Van Persie
Next season’s XI: De Gea; Rafael, Godin, Jones, Shaw; Strootman, Herrera, Rooney; Di Maria, Falcao, Bale

Data Rant: Ashley Young

December 30, 2014 Tags: , Data 4 comments
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Louis van Gaal has transformed Ashley Young from stuttering winger to a functioning wing-back this season. The 29-year-old has not set the world alight in the new role, but his presence has served a useful purpose amid an ongoing injury crisis at Old Trafford, with new signing Luke Shaw absent for most of the campaign.

If nothing else, Young has always been diligent and success in the wing-back position is in part dictated by athleticism; a hard-working winger makes for a good substitute in the role. Another industrious winger, Antonio Valencia, has also been used as a make-shift wing-back this season.

Young has taken to the new role with some gusto. There is no denying, however, that his performance has been judged leniently given the player’s previous mediocrity. The Manchester United defence is yet to display any consistent solidity this season. It is easy to mask incompetence in a sea of ineptitude. At United, simply doing the job is never enough.

Using Squawka’s index score, which totals a player’s (or team’s) contributions over each game, we investigate the relationship between Young’s performance and United’s overall performance.


In Figure 1, above, the correlation is strong enough to suggest that Young is making a solid contribution to United’s cause. After all, the Englishman is trusted to marshal the left flank on his own in Van Gaal’s narrow 3-4-1-2 system. Another possible interpretation is that the team is carrying Young; nine other Reds on the field playing well enough to take the heat off the 29-year-old.

A make-shift defender naturally lacks inherent defensive qualities and in United’s three-man defence, the left-most centre-back must be dominant enough to allow Young to concentrate on attacking. If the theory is right, Young’s Squawka ratings will be highly correlated with his centre-back partner’s.


In Figure 2, above, we discover this is not the case. That is, Young’s good run has not been due to Tyler Blackett or Jonny Evans mopping up after the Englishman. If anything, Young has been exemplary in defence – his numbers, particularly interceptions, dwarf those of a proper left-back in Luke Shaw.

What, then, about Young’s midfield partner?


In Figure 3, above, the trend is stronger than that between Young and his central defensive partner’s performances. This makes sense – it is the left-sided central midfielder, not the central defender, who is in the immediate vicinity of a left wing-back. Note – United’s game vs. Newcastle was excluded due to distorting effect of Wayne Rooney’s goals on his score in that game.

Indeed, Young is heavily dependent on central midfield. If Young is allowing the midfield to prosper then there is no reason why his partner central defender has not prospered too.

Curiously, Young’s first two games this season were very poor. Young recorded his third lowest Squawka score against Arsenal. These three games share a commonality in that the left central midfielder was a dedicated holding midfielder. In all other games, his central midfield partner – Angel di Maria, Juan Mata or Rooney – was the more attacking of the central midfield duo.

Young’s poor performance in his first two matches at left wing-back may have been caused by acclimatisation to the new role, but United was up and running by the game at the Emirates. So what about the third game of the season against Burnley in which he had the third best game so far?

It may be harsh, although not unfair, to describe Young as a mediocre talent. There is two seasons worth of evidence. The former Aston Villa man may have the pace and athleticism, but lacks the technique to navigate the attacking third without relying on speed. As a wing-back, Young has an extra 15 yards to accelerate into. The Englishman has enjoyed plenty of space to gather momentum this season.

Young may have a head start as wing-back, but he isn’t the kind of player to beat a man on his own. Playing next to a holding midfielder, the onus is entirely on the former England international to make ground. With a central midfielder such as Di Maria running with the ball and pushing forward, Young faces an easier task.

United’s recent game against Tottenham Hotspur is indicative. Young enjoyed his second worst game of the season according to Squawka. Jonny Evans, and later Shaw, had underwhelming games too, but Rooney struggled badly, misplacing 25 per cent of his passes. Young has not somehow reinvented himself as a wing-back, rather Van Gaal’s introduction of a proper box-to-box midfielder – more specifically deploying one near Young – has played to Young’s strengths.

There is little doubt that Shaw will walk into the team ahead of Young, fitness permitting, in the games ahead. Young’s deployment should be seen as Van Gaal’s attempt at making the best of what he has rather than a true renaissance – recall that Marcos Rojo has always been picked ahead of Young on the left. This analysis suggests that Young requires a highly specific system to function. The suspicion is that Young does not have the talent to warrant such treatment.

All data from Squawka
Assumptions dictating linear regression have not been held strict

Pressing: Van Gaal’s fateful philosophy

December 5, 2014 Tags: Reads 16 comments
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One year ago to the day David Moyes’ Manchester United side was ninth in the Premier League. This year the Reds lie safely in fourth with every chance of overtaking Southampton to make third come Monday. The suspicion, however, is that the Champions League spot has been earned not by United’s excellence, but by other sides’ mediocrity. Louis van Gaal’s “three months” are long past, yet the Dutchman’s expensively-assembled side has not set the Premier League alight.

Of course, Van Gaal sides have often started slowly.  In 2010 his Bayern Munich side was a game short of a treble, but only got out into the knockout stage of the Champions League with Bordeaux’s help. Yet, it has been almost six months since the Dutchman has taken over at Old Trafford and the oft-cited “philosophy” has not been clearly demonstrated on the pitch.

Some point to adaptability, as demonstrated against Arsenal, as Van Gaal’s philosophy but managers are, by definition, required to adapt to opposition. Elevating such a basic managerial facet to something greater rings hollow. On the other hand, criticism that Van Gaal has failed to implement a philosophy is also wrong considering that enough evidence hinting at an orchestrated effort to impose a plan is available.

Indeed, the rumour that United is trying to stop drones flying over Carrington, if true, hints at Van Gaal’s paranoia. The fact that the Dutchman has something to be paranoid about is as positive sign as any that some serious work is taking place on the training ground.

On a more serious note, United has clearly been more positive this season. The defeat at the Etihad is a game in point. With a man down after a “stupid” tackle by Chris Smalling, United still managed to challenge Manchester City to the point of pinning the home side in their own half for much of the final 20 minutes.

But it would be fooling to mistake United’s general improvement with the implementation of a philosophy. The latter needs an approach that is clearly distinguishable and there has only been one thing that has been constant throughout Van Gaal’s reign: change.

That said, the Dutchman has instigated a pressing system, whether in a 4-4-2 diamond, 4-1-4-1 or 3-4-1-2 formation, United has always played with a high line. Even against Arsenal, a game in which the Reds strategically sat deep, pressing was evident.

United has a very specific approach to pressing too. The opposition’s goalkeeper and centre backs are generally left unchallenged, while full backs are shown the touchline rather than seriously contested. Only when the ball comes into the middle of the park do the Reds ferociously press.

In fact, something approaching a man-marking system is adopted when the ball is deep inside the opposition area. While there are many interpretations of this ploy the most likely is that Van Gaal wants the opposition to come forward and leave space behind for quick players like Angel di Maria to exploit with direct balls over the top. This is reflected in number of long balls United has attempted this season.

It is an observation that also makes sense. Pressing the opposition’s centre backs may force long balls, but United’s forwards must still work their way through an opposition defense, structure more or less intact, even if the Reds gain possession. With the current approach United might just enjoy some space behind the opposition defence.

Further, since Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney often drift into deeper positions, United is presented with opportunities to intercept the ball in situations where a gap between opposition defenders and midfield exists. Considering that United is the most prolific side in the Premier League when it comes to scoring from outside the box, the philosophy is seemingly working.


The philosophy, however, has come at a cost. Under Moyes, United did little pressing. Under the new manager United is not only pressing, but pressing in a highly specific manner in which burst of sprints are required once the ball arrives in targeted areas of the pitch.

Pressing is a highly orchestrated affair and requires a lot of practice on the training ground. Simplistically, United’s players are in a situation where they are using muscle groups that they hadn’t used for a season. Just like joggers who didn’t stretch enough, United players have fallen foul of too many injuries.

Hamstring injuries are caused by inadequate stretching and sudden stopping and starting, while groin injuries are caused in particular by sudden changes in direction. Both have been common at Old Trafford since Van Gaal took helm.

The groin injuries suffered by Michael Carrick, Rafael da Silva, Chris Smalling and Angel di Maria, have been too common and they are caused, in particular, by sudden changes in direction.

Comparing this season’s injury count to those under Moyes reveals that United has had more hamstring injuries to date than in the whole of last season. With only 14 games played, the Reds have suffered more than a half of all groin injuries suffered last season.injuries

di Maria has suffered both hamstring and groin injuries. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that he is United’s preeminent counter-attacking forward and a player required to do plenty of dribbling.

The evidence is anecdotal and no attempt at more rigorous methods of establishing correlation has been made. Still, the logic is convincing and, if true, United’s injury blight should alleviate as players – more importantly their muscles – get used to Van Gaal’s philosophy.

The lack of European football will also offer the United squad time to stretch into the new philosophy – just in time for next season’s Champions League. This might be especially true if the recent rumour of United’s “Gaalactico-ization” next summer is accurate.

With thanks to Liz Worseley (@LizWorsley) during research. All errors are mine.