Data Rant: United’s summer game of Moneyball

May 13, 2014 Tags: , Data 19 comments
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Manchester United will start the 2014/15 season with only domestic honors at stake. Being out of Europe, however, could turn out to be a blessing in disguise, enabling an overhaul of a squad in desperate need of renovation. Louis van Gaal certainly has the track record to revitalise a slumbering giant, but the Dutchman faces a great challenge at Old Trafford.

First, van Gaal must attend to United’s attack – there less goals at Old Trafford compared to the season before and the decline in the chances created is noticeable.  Wayne Rooney has maintained his shooting accuracy while Danny Welbeck has improved significantly. Robin van Persie has not matched the form of last season, but the addition of Juan Mata should have more than made up for the Dutchman’s decline.

United goals and chances

Shot Accuracy

Meanwhile, the charts below show the relationship between chances created/assists and goals at all 20 Premier League teams this season. Assists and goals scored understandably have a particularly strong correlation. In the past season the Reds have seen the number of assists drop dramatically – and while United has not only created less chances, they’ve created poorer chances too.

Figure-1 - Chances vs Goals

Figure-2 - Assists vs Goals

Michael Carrick created four goals from deep last season, while he failed to record any assists in the campaign just finished. Similarly, three assists from Ashley Young last season has dwindled to just one in this. The summary is that United’s midfield has been mediocre offensively and improvements, from players already at Old Trafford or otherwise, must be made.

However, the 2012/13 Premier League winning side has been augmented by Adnan Januzaj and Mata. Given the offensive talent at hand reclaiming the title next season remains a realistic goal, but to do that United must match Premier League winners Manchester City.

Manchester City goals assists chances

Manchester United goals assists chances

As a unit United’s midfield has scored 0.71 goals, created 3.7 chances and recorded 0.5 assists less than the City engine room per game over the past season. The need for ‘a David Silva’ is obvious, but curiously United’s midfielders tackled more than rivals at City. The Blues bettered United in maintaining possession so one interpretation is that the Reds simply had to regain the ball more often.

Successful tackles United

Successful tackles City

The chart above demonstrates that Fernandinho played in a holding role for City. The fact that there are four United players – Tom Cleverley, Maroune Fellaini, Antonio Valencia and Carrick – who did a lot of defensive work paints a negative picture of David Moyes’ tenure at United. Cleverley and Fellaini, combined, scored and created less than Fernandinho. The data also points to the need for a defensive midfielder who is also at ease in the attacking third – if only because Mata and Januzaj do less defensive work than Silva or Samir Nasri.

However, United does not have to recruit a single player. Modern football is a squad game and the objective is to match City’s midfield. Sir Alex Ferguson ushered in the era of rotation by switching between Teddy Sheringham, Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer  in 1998. With the three worst performers in Fellaini, Cleverley and Young to be replaced, the goal is simply to buy: 0.82 goals, 5.3 chances and 0.61 assists per game. One player must be capable of playing as a holding midfielder.

Yet, the new manager may be bound not only by the Glazers enforced austerity, but also by circumstances. United’s defence requires attention given that Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and possibly Patrice Evra will all leave this summer. It means that a top signing in the faltering engine room may prove to be a transfer too far.

Yet, just like the Oakland Athletics led by Billy Beane – of Moneyball fame –  United could resort to the bargain bin for a hidden gem this summer. For the exercise our search criteria is as follows:

  • Up to three players
  • Under 25 to fit the Glazers’ typical policy
  • Not farfetched e.g. does not play for a top, established side
  • Played at least thirty games in the top-tier in England, Germany, Spain, Italy or France last season
  • At one of Europe’s more ‘pliable’ clubs.

To complete the analysis we need the figures – and a recognition that one pricey signing’s impact can be matched by two cheap players putting in twenty games each.



The data shows that there is no two-player combination that solves United’s midfield problem in one go, but purchasing Marco Reus and Mainz’ Johannes Geis will leave the Reds only 0.16 goals and 0.2 chances per game short of City. Having declared that he will stay at Borussia Dortmund, Reus will need more wooing than previously thought. There is hope though. While the €35m buy out clause might be cheap for a player of Reus’ caliber, United get the same number by purchasing:

HSV’s Hakan Calhanoglu OR Dortmund’s Henrikh Mkhitaryan plus Hoffenheim’s Roberto Firmino OR Sociedad’s Antoinne Griezmann OR Montpellier’s Remy Cabella. Plus a pick of holding midfielders – Geis is the most creative, but Southampton’s Morgan Schneiderlin, Udinese’s Allan and Lille’s Idrissa Gueye are more dependable.

At a pinch United can add a 0.30 -0.40 goal-a-game player and then hope that Januzaj develops or Shinji Kagawa regains the form he showed at Dortmund.

Young, Cleverley and Fellaini are each on high wages so cannot be moved on easily, which means United might settle for a holding midfielder to anchor a 4-3-3 formation under van Gaal. Perhaps it is worth noting that only Malaga’s Ignacio Camacho created less than Fellaini this season – the Spaniard scored, tackled and intercepted more though.

It must, of course, be said that an individual’s statistics are simply manifestations of their team-mates and a team’s tactics. Ferguson infamously sold Jaap Stam on the basis of decreased number of tackles and was proven wrong. Still, statistical analysis is a valuable tool in evaluating players and due diligence is generally carried out in multi-million-pound deals. After all, United has learned that lesson the hard way with Moyes.

* all data from domestic league games
** all data from Squawka
*** assumptions dictating linear regression have not been held strict


colm crossan - May 13, 2014 Reply


Nemesis - May 13, 2014 Reply

A statistician’s dream. A intricate Odyssey which could form the basis for many a good pub conversation. Jay needs a hobby!!

twat - May 13, 2014 Reply

Well, err, good research. And props for doing something different. But to call for two average squad players instead of one elite player is one of the reasons we’re in this current mess. The opening point about the lack of european games to contend with next year also suggests squad filler is unnecessary. Otherwise, good effort!

mongoletsi - May 13, 2014 Reply

Why the hell is Young on £130k per week?

Jay Shon - May 14, 2014 Reply

Partly because he was six months away from Bosman and Arsenal was also after him.

He had the numbers though at Villa and versatility always excited Fergie.

Another thing was Young’s long distance shooting. SAF was clearly pushing Rooney out the door and needed someone who could take a shot from outside the box.

Young cost far more than he should have but the deal made sense on paper and to be fair he did pretty good in his debut season.

ForeverRed - May 14, 2014 Reply

Nice analysis Jay. The midfield stats make particularly painful reading despite the fact that we all know it without the numbers!

The situation sadly has been years in the making with a total failure to either develop or buy quality replacements for multiple positions. The squad filler /workhorse approach to transfer targets that worked in the PL for Fergie in his last few years was shown inadequate for Europe 5 years ago. That’s five years lost.

We’ll need a complete U-turn in Glazernomics transfer strategy and some careful, proactive nurturing of some of our promising youth to turn this around. But we shouldn’t expect miracles next season. This will take 2-3 years and a lot of change.

Jade Rickerts - May 14, 2014 Reply

What about Nick Powel and one mediocre holding midfielder signing? That should free up some funds for two quality defenders to replace Ferdinand, Vidic and Evra. If it is true that we have Shaw in the bag, all we need is someone like Garay then we should be fine. I also think we could get much more out of our current squad than Moyes managed to with his negative tactics.

Next season is gonna be alright. We’ll be back in the top 4 but doubt we will be challenging for the title. Liverpool, City, Chelsea and Arsenal aren’t just gonna roll over and let United back in the title race that easily. Exciting times ahead. Just glad we don’t have to go through another transfer window with Moyes in charge.

Jay Shon - May 14, 2014 Reply

I simply don’t know Nick Powell. He’s done very well but he played in the Championship and Europa League. Don’t think it’s reasonable to think that he’d come good immediately in the Premier league.

Great point about the new manager potentially getting more out of the squad. The point I clumsily tried to make in the piece is that the engine room needs work but so does defense – midfield though might be patched up with few, hopefully cheap, recruitments.

tourettes@ the KOB - May 16, 2014 Reply

He’s got to be better than Cleverly, and must be given a chance !!

Jade Rickerts - May 16, 2014 Reply

Agreed. We simply can’t go another season with Cleverly in the midfield. Maybe he might improve under new management next season, but I highly doubt it. I feel like anyone can be better than Cleverly right now. And Fellaini might also come good next season, but his best position is upfront, which already has a long list players who better than him fighting it out. Adnan, Wayne, Shinji and Juan. So basically Fellaini either has to adapt into a new role has holding midfielder or he has to be shipped out.

We should really explore the possibility of bringing in young players from the youth. Isn’t that what United stand for. Our mouth’s are watering at the potential of new signings but we forget that we have talent right at home. Hopefully van Gaal might find a couple of kids to bring through the academy. This would make the fans happy, this will boost morale and the Glazers can keep their money in their wallets. A win-win for everyone. So let’s forget about Toni Kroos, Carvalho and Cesc and concentrate on our home grown talent.

Axel Foley - May 14, 2014 Reply

nice, although I feel a dominating midfield general, with good distribution will increase the productivity of tthe front 3

Jay Shon - May 14, 2014 Reply

Agreed but I don’t see real goalscorer in midfield or out wide besides Mata. Januzaj has the directness but I feel he needs another season before he can come good in terms of goalscoring.

So a goalscoring midfielder or winger would be a prudent investment – if only to ease in Januzaj rather than thrust him into the center stage.

sean roche - May 14, 2014 Reply

a good read

Denton Davey - May 14, 2014 Reply

Come back Keane-o, all will be forgiven.

But, back to reality, these “statistics” tell us what we already know:

AshleyBloodyYoung and Fellaini aren’t good enough and need to be exported, bugger the cost; and.

Michael Carrick is past it.

More to the point, the incredible slowness of the central core – Ferdinand/Vidic/Carrick – created too much space “between the lines” which isolated the attackers thereby making them easier to mark.

Playing a fairly-rigid 4-4-2, with touchline-hugging wingers of dubious quality, meant that not only were UTD being out-manned in midfield but also in attack.

JA - May 16, 2014 Reply

The penny has, if you believe dead wood yesterday, finally dropped for the pennypinching carpetbagger glazers. Nine years of unnecessary florida imposed austerity masked by Ferguson’s ability to get blood out of stones, finally unravelled when the ever so mortal Moyes was handed the reins. Now the carpetbaggers simply have to spend to have any chance of getting back in the CL and keep those official partner deals that their lapdog deadwood is so enraptured by, rolling in and the money with it.
We shall see, their management of the Bucs has been disastrous and plenty of signs suggest United could go the same way.

manda - May 24, 2014 Reply

Nice analysis her my only question is how do we play mata rooney rvp januzaj on the same pitch do we hav to risk defence to get dis

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