The soon-to-depart midfielder Anderson was converted from a typical advanced playmaker to an ‘eight’ by Sir Alex Ferguson – the rationale being that the Brazilian has all the attributes of a great box-to-box midfielder. Anderson has not lived up to a promising first season at Old Trafford after joining in 2007, leaving Manchester United short of attacking thrust from central midfield for the past seven years.
Ferguson could afford to get by on a functional midfield partly due to Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes’ excellent passing, but mostly due to a reliance on high-flying wingers. Cristiano Ronaldo’s sheer explosiveness helped mask a pedestrian midfield, while Antonio Valencia, for a while at least, consistently provided dangerous crosses from the right.
That Valencia has suffered two poor seasons in a row, while Ashley Young and Nani face an uncertain future at Old Trafford, says something about the degradation in that department. Luke Shaw and Rafael are exciting young fullbacks, but they are limited by their position on the pitch. Yet, having thoroughly figured out 5-3-2 at the World Cup, Louis Van Gaal might even do away with wingers entirely if he is to get the best out of his United squad.
Central midfielders, therefore, must break the lines to provide attacking impetus from midfield; Ander Herrera has been recruited for that task. The question of whether United actually needs such a player remains though. After all, direct football, such as that employed by Netherlands in Brazil this summer, tends to bypass the middle entirely.
In this Data Rant we look at the best dribbler from each Premier League side’s central midfield then see if their skills have any correlation with points the player’s team earned last season. In figure 1, below, there seems to be little relationship between the two. That is, having a good dribbler in the engine room is not strongly related to winning games.
Notice, however, that six points are clearly distinguishable from the rest in upper-middle areas – those belong to the top six sides. With these clubs removed, in figure 2, the correlation is stronger. In addition, United is now an outlier – the Reds are the best of the bad bunch and the worst of the good.
The fact that United’s best midfield dribbler is Tom Cleverley, and that the Reds had the worst such player in the Premier League is, in a sense, interesting. From a purely box-to-box point of view, the Reds should have ranked lower in the table. Put simply, there are other factors that make up for the lack of an all action midfielder.
In figure 3, below, the top four lie above the blue line. It is that line van Gaal’s United must aim for in the coming season. Notice the horizontal spread between these clubs. There are significant gaps between City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal’s best midfield runners, despite little differences in points. This is another piece of evidence that on-the-ball running is not an important a factor in winning football matches.
This conclusion runs against intuition, of course. When a skilful midfielder is pinned down, he can work his way out of trouble, enabling his team to create an overload or attacking opportunity. Yaya Touré, for example, would not have scored twenty goals had he not been an exceptional dribbler. Meanwhile, stronger sides have to regularly break down defiant defenses. While holding on to that ball could also earn the team that last-minute set piece, it is relevant to note that any player with the ball can accomplish this feat.
Finally, in figure 4, there is a significant relationship between points and number of take-ons attempted by each Premier League club. United is about 200 take-ons short of the top four.
Juan Mata chalked up 52 in his last full season at Chelsea, while Herrera supplied 73 for Athletic in 2013/14. Provided the pair performs to that level in the coming season United should dribble its way into a stronger position in the Premier League table.
This bodes well for Ander’s impact at Old Trafford. United was deficient in many things last season, but at the very least, David Moyes was short an Ander Herrera.
All data from Squawka
A brief note on methodology:
1) All categories are weighted equally
2) Each figure has been adjusted relative to the ‘best’ in each category
3) Assumptions dictating linear regression have not been held strict