Data Rant: United’s summer game of Moneyball
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.
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.
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.
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.
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