There are many positives from the season as it draws to a close, which will presumably include securing the Premier League in the coming weeks. Yet, it is an open question whether United has actually progressed this year. Silverware is silverware, and nothing is more important than regaining the Premier League, but United has still failed in three competitions.
Moreover, the statistics do not paint a pretty picture of United’s campaign – in too many areas the side has actually regressed this season. There is, in fact, a strong argument to say that City’s failure, more than United’s improvement, is the primary cause behind the Reds’ romp to the Premier League.
True, Ferguson’s side leads the title race by a healthy 12 points, even counting for City’s victory at Old Trafford on Monday night. Then there are the 25 league wins in 31 games – an outstanding record – and a campaign that at times has included some exciting, vibrant football.
City has been left in United’s wake, despite becoming “Champions of Manchester” on Monday.
Yet, the narrative of the season, presuming United doesn’t completely blow the title of course, may still not be as positive as Ferguson has sought to make out in recent weeks. The Reds’ oft-mentioned determination to regain the Premier League crown is admirable, but there is also ample evidence that it is others’ failure that really counts.
After all, 31 league games into the campaign and United is just a single point ahead of the total gained at the same time last season – 77 to 76 points. Given United’s shaky form the side will do well to beat last season’s tally of 89, let alone smash Chelsea’s Premier League record of 95.
Much has been made of the ‘record’ 25 wins in the league this season. So what? Last’s year’s less-than-vintage breed secured 24 at the same point.
Worse still, Ferguson’s side has actually scored less – 71 to 76 – and conceded more 33 to 27 – than at the comparable point last year. Despite Robin van Persie’s hugely expensive acquisition, the Dutchman’s principal contribution has seemingly been to shift Wayne Rooney into a deeper, far less productive role.
Goals have been reasonably spread between four forwards this year – van Persie, Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernández. Just as they were last season: van Persie an upgrade on Dimitar Berbatov, but Welbeck and Rooney are now far less productive.
In fact many of the key statistics don’t look healthy.
Defensively, Ferguson’s outfit concedes more per game, wins less 50-50 challenges, and makes less interceptions on average in each fixture than last season. On average United is making a defensive error every 148 minutes this year, compared to every 224 minutes last season.
United has lost possession less this season, with open play pass success a percentage point greater than in the previous campaign. But where 40 per cent of passes were forwards last season, that number has dropped to just 27 per cent in the current campaign.
United is keeping the ball marginally better, but it is hard to argue that the side is being more effective with it. In fact pass accuracy in the final third is down season-on-season.
Creatively United is far less potent, perhaps reflecting the troubling campaign suffered by Ashley Young, Nani and Antonio Valencia. That Shinji Kagawa has rarely played in his ‘natural’ trequartista role even when fit says much about United’s confused approach.
Indeed, the side is making almost 35 per cent fewer successful dribbles per match than last year, and succeeding with far fewer crosses too. Clear cut chances created are up over the campaign, but the data tells us that this is largely a factor of superior set piece delivery.
Despite van Persie’s addition, shooting accuracy is down, as is chance conversion over the season.
And if the statistics don’t paint a compelling tale then perhaps the soft evidence does. After all, while United is streaking away with the Premier League, exit at an early stage in three cup competitions wasn’t exactly in the plan.
Unfortunate against Real Madrid perhaps, but at no stage over two legs was progression guaranteed either. Meanwhile, exit to Chelsea in two cup competitions certainly stings.
Moreover, the aforementioned exciting football has certainly dried up post-Christmas, with United’s focus shifting to running a tighter ship as the season progressed towards its dénouement. No longer prevalent is the free-flowing ethos that the Reds will ‘always score one more’ than the opposition.
Most tellingly the wind has been taken completely out of the team’s sails post that Madrid quarter-final. If the response to unfortunate defeat says one thing it’s that the character of Ferguson’s side is not as robust as he claims.
Perhaps, then, the true narrative of the campaign is not that United has been universally brilliant – 12 points worth of brilliance – but that others have failed?
Certainly Roberto Mancini’s outfit is nowhere near as potent, with City scoring 18 goals less than at a compatible stage this season to last. The goal drought has translated into points too, with City six points down after 31 games. Goals, or lack of them, are the major contributory factor in City’s demise.
Indeed, City’s stats are down year-on-year in almost every key category: defensive errors, pass competition, final third balls, chances created per match, shots, and most importantly chances taken. It is a completely damning tale of failure, driven not by injury, but something more fundamental.
Sir Alex deserves credit for driving United relentlessly on until the past month. It will be a successful season. By contrast it is Mancini that must surely look over his shoulder for the coming reaper: his failure is brutally conspicuous.
Lies, damned lies, and statistics. While this side isn’t as great as the 1999 or even 2008 versions, despite what Sir Alex says, United have absolutely improved since last season. The stats do not tell the whole story.
There can be no doubt the last five United games have been immensely disappointing, going from potential treble winners to feeble and insincere performances. Still, nearly every major weakness United displayed last season has been, in some way, improved in 2012/13.
The most significant improvement is that after failing to win a match form one down last season, United has claimed 13 comeback victories this year. This doesn’t include dramatic victories over Chelsea and City away. Euphoric wins against Southampton, Newcastle United, Reading, and Aston Villa are the defining characteristic of this United side.
Another major improvement is United’s creativity. There have been more clear-cut chances created per minute, more passes per minute, and better pass completion. United’s counter attacks, which used to be a major source of frustration, have been effectively utilised as a strategy against tougher opposition.
Unlike last season United look dangerous at set pieces. “I think I’ll have a shot,” anyone?
And speaking of van Persie, he has easily been the biggest influence on the Reds this season with his first touch, sublime passes, and season defining goals. Yes, the striker is in the midst of a goal drought, but van Persie has quickly become United’s most vital player. Even during the dry spell, van Persie forced the own goal versus Sunderland and the assist against City.
The other big signing, Kagawa, has not thrived in England yet, but adds major creative options which United lacked last season. More importantly, Kagawa’s arrival has helped Sir Alex shift his tactics this season to a flexible 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-1-1. While Ferguson’s tactics have been experimental, due to out of form wingers and few central midfield options, United boasts much more depth than the prosaic 4-4-2 last year.
Moreover, with Kagawa, Rooney, Welbeck, van Persie, and Chicharito competing for similar positions, United has attacking options on and off the bench, which are capable of changing a game.
Chicharito, specifically, has improved, rectifying the issue with a poor first touch and frequency with which he was caught offside. The Mexican’s shots on target and goals per minute have nearly doubled, and his shooting accuracy has increased.
Others have improved too. Rafael has been a revelation this season, adding much needed stability to United’s defence and a brilliant counter-attacking option from the right side. The Brazilian has been one of the best full-backs in England with three goals, as many assists, and he has created over three times the amount of clear-cut chances per minute as last season.
And another player who has improved since last season is Phil Jones. The youngster was immense against Everton and Real Madrid, where he shut down players such as Marouanne Fellaini, Mesut Özil, and Angel di Maria from midfield. Against City, he proved that he can be trusted to play as a central defender as well.
Meanwhile, Tom Cleverley has become an important asset in midfield, especially with Paul Scholes, Darren Fletcher, and Anderson unfit. Cleverley’s ability to win and hold possession has increased in particular, and his time spent on the pitch is three times more than last season.
The weaknesses in this side have also been exaggerated. United’s chaotic defence earlier this season was less to do with the strength of Ferguson’s players and more to do with injuries, and an experimental formation that created gaps in midfield.
Defensively, Ferguson’s options are stronger. Both Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling have improved individually, and Patrice Evra has been solid. Evra’s challenge in balancing his attacking and defensive duties has been rectified. The Frenchman has increased his tackle success rate and has improved in the air. Going forward, Evra has improved his crossing accuracy, scored four and made five assists this season.
Despite improvements all over the pitch, this United squad is not yet the finished product. The team has scored less, conceded more, and is only a point better off than this time last season. Perhaps the side only plays at the level necessary to beat the opponent at hand; complacency showing against weaker sides?
Up until Madrid, United had beaten every top team faced, except for Tottenham Hotspur. And generally this strategy has worked, except for ties against Norwich City, Swansea City, and Spurs. The consequence is less intensity, more mistakes, and more goals scored out of necessity. It does not make United’s a worse squad than last year, but simply exposes a character flaw.
Perhaps it is this squad’s mental strength that needs most improvement; a statement open to ridicule considering the glorious comebacks and last minute goals of the campaign.
However, the biggest disappointment has been the side’s response since Madrid. One match flipped United from a team capable of conquering Europe to a lacklustre outfit going through the motions. It is for this reason that fans can conclude the squad is still in transition, despite the huge Premier League lead.
Changes need to be made on the wing, with Valencia, Young, and Nani each out of form or perennially injured. And a central midfielder would certainly be welcome.
The truth the team is probably only a couple signings away from being the next great United side. That’s something to be excited about.