3 wins from 3 games has brought the swagger back to Old Trafford, but just how good have United been?
What a difference a few months can make. It doesn’t seem that long ago that Louis Van Gaal was our manager and we were slogging our way through a quagmire of philosophy to a 5th place finish in a season that saw Leicester of all teams take home the league title. Whatever the problems were last year though, United have looked a different side through the first month of the 2016-17 campaign, and only find themselves denied a spot at the top of table based on goal difference. The squad is almost unrecognizable under new boss Jose Mourinho, and the seamless addition of a number of big personalities has the Reds thinking title. It’s probably still too early to draw any meaningful conclusions from statistics, but that doesn’t mean we can’t look at them and whip ourselves into more of a frenzy anyway.
Let’s start with some team stats. Everything will be taken from WhoScored.com unless otherwise noted.
As the old cliche goes, defense wins championships, so that’s where we’ll start. In terms of goals allowed, United have the best defense in the league through 3 games, conceding only once, and only Courtois has had to make less saves than King Dave (of House De Gea, First of his Name, etc, etc), with his 3 narrowly edging Dave’s 4 for least in the league. Of course, Chelsea have also conceded one more goal than us, so I’m sure Thibault would happily trade that extra save for one less goal conceded.
United also are near the lowest in the league in a couple of other defensive categories, including tackles (2nd), clearances (4th) and most notably, times dribbled past (3rd). The times dribbled past number speaks for itself, but if on first glance you’re wondering why having a low number of tackles and clearances is a positive thing, I’d urge you to look at the league leaders in those departments. I’ll give you a clue: Hull, Stoke, and Watford are near the top of every list. The point is, the way we’ve dominated games simply means we’re not defending as much as other teams.
However, while all these numbers are encouraging, we had a pretty stout defense a year ago, and I think we can all agree that the most important improvements have been made in how dangerous we look going forward.
The most notable improvement offensively has been made in terms of both our number of total shots, and in the number of shots we’ve put on target. We’re currently averaging 17.3 shots per game with 7 on target, good for 3rd and 2nd in the league respectively. For comparison, we only managed 11.3 and 3.8 last year, and have only averaged 12.9 and 4.4 in the 3 years since Sir Alex left. Though this probably has more to do with the players we now have than any philosophical changes, I also think you could make the case that both Pogba and Ibra have already taken a couple shots through these first few games that would’ve seen them benched, or at the very least scolded last year.
Another area where we’ve gotten much more aggressive is in terms of taking players on. Though our 12.7 dribbles per game this year is only good for 7th in the league, it’s nearly 3 better than the 9.8’s we averaged in each of Van Gaal’s seasons in charge, and it’s nice to see our guys playing without fear again.
In terms of possession, our pass completion rate and our actual possession % have both seen interesting shifts. Though possession is down to 52.4% so far this year, our completion rate is up actually up more than 4%. This seems to contradict what LVG preached these last 2 years, and even though we’re playing less conservatively, we’re playing more efficiently.
One final thing of note is how we’ve scored our goals. It seems like we literally spent months last year listening to those disgusting “United hasn’t scored from open play in X games” narratives, but to be honest it was warranted because often times our football was shit. This year though, 5 out our 6 goals have come from open play, for an average of 1.7 per game. I know it’s still early days, but that’s almost twice as many as last year (0.9) and more than 50% better than what we’ve averaged over the last 3 (1.1). I think this is a great sign of things to come, as well, because we haven’t really gotten our counter game going yet, and once Mkhi starts to establish himself I think that things will only start to open up more.
Overall there’s just been a night and day difference in the way we’re playing right now, and that’s reflected in the fact that we have the highest team performance score on Squawka across Europe’s Top 5 leagues.
Now let’s look at some individuals. Tony V and Luke Shaw have been excellent on the flanks and are rated at 7.43 and 7.11 on WhoScored, ranking 7th and 11th respectively among Premier League fullbacks. Ibra’s 7.71 rating is actually in the Prem’s Top 10 overall, and his 4 shots and 1 goal per game are both in the Top 10 among strikers and attacking mids, ranking 6th and 2nd respectively. The Fellainaissance is officially in full swing, with the big guy predictably in the Top 10 among midfielders in aerial duels won, but also being surprisingly effective as a ball winner and possession cycler (72.3 passes per game, 91% completions, 5 tackles and interceptions combined per game). Even perennial scapegoat Wayne Rooney has been in on the act, chipping in with a goal, 2 assists, and a cool 7.53 rating. Honestly pretty much everyone who’s played is worth noting, but the two who I think warrant a closer look are Eric Bailly and Paul Pogba, who have completely changed the dynamic of our squad. Let’s start with Pogs.
I’ve already written about Pogba a couple times, previously comparing him to some of the best midfielders in England and across Europe, and I think it’s safe to say he’s adjusting to life in the Premier League just fine. Though you could make the argument that his personality and attitude have given us as big a lift as anything, his play on the field has been absolutely stellar, as well, and I think he’s been the best midfielder in the league through the first month.
As previously detailed, Pogba is as good as there is in world football at surging forward from midfield and having a go, and through the first month he’s actually been even better here than he was at Juve. His 5 shots per game are best in the league, and up over 1 per game from the 3.7 he averaged last year. The only thing that looks concerning here is that he’s only putting 20% on target, but 7 out of the 10 have come from outside the box, and even then he’s had 2 or 3 fizz right passed the post. The important take away is that he’s making teams come out and guard him, and I think it’s only a matter of time before he finds the back of the net.
We also discussed his ability to run with the ball from midfield as a strength, and he’s continued to build on that at United, as well. His 7.5 attempted dribbles per game is comfortably the best in the league among qualifying midfielders (and more than double David Silva’s 3.7 in 10th), and his 5 successful dribbles per game are matched only by United loanee Adnan Januzaj. His 2 unsuccessful touches per game may seem a bit high, but considering how many touches he’s getting, and especially the number he gets in tight spaces, it seems like less of an issue. He’s also only being dispossessed once per game, and I think we can all agree that his ability to hold up the ball and dribble out of trouble in our own half has been a most welcome addition and has relieved pressure on multiple occasions.
A final offensive area that we should look at is his possession play. This was a concern for some people coming into the season, and though we haven’t yet seen it manifest into key passes or assists, I do think we can see that he’s improving in a couple different ways.
Firstly, he’s averaging 81.5 passes per game through August, which is up from around 50 last year at Juve and 63.6 for France at Euros. This shows that he’s moving around well and putting himself in good spots to receive the ball.
He’s also improved how efficient he is once he’s on it, with his 85.3% completions up a good 2% from what we saw last year, which is especially impressive considering how aggressive he’s been. According to Squawka, almost 70% of his passes have been forward balls, compared to just 57% for someone like Kevin De Bruyne, who I think we can agree is a fairly incisive passer. Put it all together and I think those assists/key passes are more a matter of when than if.
Let’s take a quick look at Paul’s defensive effort, as well, before moving on to his rock of a teammate. Overall he’s pretty much continued where he left off in Italy. Tackles per game are still relatively low, but his 0.5 times dribbled past is again excellent, good for 3rd among qualifying mids and again confirming the idea that while he may not tackle much, he’s good at it when he does. He’s improving his reading of the game under Mourinho, as well, with his 2.5 interceptions per game good for 18th in the Prem. Overall, I think that Paul has absolutely lived up to expectations.
His teammate, however, has unquestionably exceeded them. I think we were all excited about the prospect we were getting in Eric Bailly, and none more so than myself, considering that I signed him to my United career mode the week before he was actually announced in real life (Jose is my spirit animal). I don’t think any of us, including Mourinho, expected him to be this good this soon though.
The the first thing that jumps out about Eric for me is just how comfortable he is on the ball. He’s very happy to control in or pass into tight spaces with either foot, and even though he’d have to be considered the steel to Daley Blind’s silk (37 passes per game vs Blind’s 51), he’s actually been the more accurate of the two with his distribution, completing over 95% of his passes. He’s also displayed a first touch that probably makes Wayne Rooney jealous, and has only been dispossessed once in three games.
Then there’s his physical traits. The perception is that Bailly still has a ways to go in terms of reading the game, and while I think he probably does, he’s so athletic that it’s honestly hard to be sure. This is because he’s able to recover so quickly that it’s nearly impossible to tell when he’s out of position. Watch the Community Shield again, and look at how easily he deals with Jamie Vardy. There are several times where he not only matches him for pace, but absolutely destroys him in shoulder to shoulder 50/50s. United have controlled games enough that neither Eric or his partner are near the top of the league in terms of clearances or aerial duels, but the fact that he hasn’t been dribbled past or lost an aerial in 3 league games is evidence enough of his physical dominance.
A final thing that I’ve very much enjoyed about Eric is his aggression. He uses that ridiculous athleticism to hurtle himself around the pitch with an almost comical disregard for human life, and currently finds himself just inside the Top 10 in the league with 1.3 fouls per 90. Fortunately though, he’s also found his way into the Top 10 in tackles, with his 2.3 per 90 good for 7th among center backs. The best part about all of this though is that he hasn’t yet been disciplined for any of his actions, so he knows how to send a message without stepping over the line.
Overall, Bailly is looking like the complete package, and even at £30M seems like he might be the steal of the season. It’s a testament to both he and Daley Blind that Chris Smalling, who was arguably our best player for large stretches last year, can’t find his way back into our first XI. What’s even crazier is that after 4 games it doesn’t really sound that crazy to say that Eric Bailly has the potential to be right up there with some of our club legends at center back. Or maybe it does. Either way, United fans have a lot to be excited about, and it’s the first time you’ve been able to say that in far too long.