Data Rant: United’s summer game of Moneyball II

July 18, 2015 Tags: , Data 2 comments
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The ‘Moneyball’ approach is now omnipresent in sport. Sabermetics, econometrics as applied to baseball, translates poorly to football, but the overall thought still holds. The idea of ‘buying’ goals and assists, rather than players, is not all that revolutionary.

Last summer, Data Rant utilised the Moneyball approach to look at some potential signings. With Manchester United’s acquisitions more or less wrapped up for the summer, we instead evaluate the purchases made to date. Specifically Data Rant looks at United’s midfield, as bolstered by Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin, to see if the new United engine room is ready for a title-challenging run.

First, we look how the Reds’ midfield fare when compared to Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool last season. Only midfielders who made at least 25 games have been considered and their statistics have been compiled into each club’s ‘representative’ midfielder in Table 1, below.


United’s midfield of Daley Blind, Ander Herrera and Maroune Fellaini fare well against the rest of the top four as far as defence and goalscoring go. Curiously, Chelsea’s trio of Nemanja Matic, Cesc Fabregas and Oscar did not do so well in front of goal. Chelsea’s trio made up for that particular shortcoming by being significantly more creative than City and United.

Only Aaron Ramsey and Santi Carzorla made more than 25 appearances at the Emirates last season, which in itself is a huge problem. However, the pair was particularly effective and boast the best figures in attacking categories.

Of course, these measures are bound by each team’s style, and one way of negating that observation, and getting a more accurate overall picture, is to look at these statistics in relation to one another. We focus on three criteria: defence (tackles and interceptions per appearance), passing (pass accuracy and key passes per appearance) and attack (runs and goals per appearance) – Table 2, below.


Each category is scored from 0 to 1, 1 being the best relative to others. Interestingly, the Premier League Champions are not at the top of the table – Chelsea’s midfield does not come out ahead of City, Arsenal and United’s in any category. This intuitively makes sense: a specialist midfield can easily be figured out, while a title-winning midfield must be able to do everything well.

Following this line of thought, United needs to improve on chance creation and perhaps goal scoring to beat last season’s fourth-place finish. The Reds’ new holding midfielder, Schneiderlin, is better than Blind in every category. Meanwhile, Schweinsteger carries a caveat of only having played 20 game last season, but logically the German will replace Fellaini in Louis van Gaal’s side. Fellaini was the weakest of the trio from the last season in terms of passing. With these substitutions in mind …


… United then has the ‘best’ midfield among last season’s top four. The Reds’ problem last year was midfield’s inability to feed the forwards – Fellaini contributed goals, but did surprisingly little in terms of defence and creativity. Schweinsteiger takes care of that problem while Schneiderlin is an upgrade on Blind.

In an ideal world, where the two new recruits settle in quickly, Schneiderlin’s defensive screening should allow Herrera and Schweinsteiger to be even more creative, and allow Wayne Rooney and/or a new striker to blossom.

Herrera’s case is particularly noteworthy. The Spaniard has contributed defensively almost as much as United’s dedicated holding midfielder Blind. Herrera also improved on his goal scoring following last summer’s arrival at Old Trafford and an argument can be made that a ‘proper’ midfield destroyer like Schneiderlin will allow the former Athletic Bilbao midfielder to further improve on his creative and goalscoring output.

It is unlikely that United’s rivals will not also improve in midfield, of course. One nightmarish scenario is that a top club improves its midfield to the point that United’s reinforcement is negated.

It is also trivial, of the moment, to say United’s midfield has improved after the recruitment of two classy midfielders. The numbers strongly suggest, however, a coherent recruitment strategy. Van Gaal and Ed Woodward have done their homework.

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