If you’re wondering whether it would be right or wrong to call Manchester United’s ongoing season a good one, then you’re not alone. It has been an exciting for the fans of the red devils but it’s still hard to place any name tags like ‘successful’ or ‘improved’ on it yet. A positive run in the league that sees the club in a so-called “title race” has been sandwiched the disappointing Champions League group stage exit and recent Carabao Cup semi-final loss to City. A very different season of football which started with no pre-season break, is filled with fixture congestion issues and still hasn’t been immune to repeated COVID contractions and player fitness issues, makes it hard to assess whether United are actually having a good season or not. We try to break through the confusion using our greatest weapon – data. Below are a few detailed data visualizations of some of the underlying numbers that can indicate how the red devils are performing this season and who the stand-out players are.
The first viz highlights the Premier League teams who are over-performing on their expected goals like Southampton and Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham and those who are under-performing with respect to their goals scored like Sheffield United and Burnley. All stats used are per 90 minute stats. United and Liverpool have not only been scoring high but also more than expected. This kind of slight over-performance is sustainable and expected for a top team challenging for titles since they would boast of players with the ability to over-perform and score from unexpected situations as well. It reads well for United fans who are trying to understand if this type of performance in the league is sustainable.
The next logical question will be which United players are over-performing and under-performing on expected goals. This viz highlights exactly that. The players over-performing on xG are Rashford and Bruno. Rashford’s xG in the game against Paris Saint Germain at Old Trafford was just 0.1 whereas his goal against Brighton at home was a 0.3 xG chance. Bruno’s double against Everton at Goodison park had a combined xG of just 0.2. Worryingly, Anthony Martial has a negative G-xG differential. His blank against PSG at Old Trafford accrued 0.9 xG while he failed to scored at West Bromwich Albion even with an xG of 0.8. Martial has had a reputation of over-performing on his expected goals metric, the best of which United fans witnessed in the 19/20 season where he scored 17 goals in the league with an xG of 10.9 only. Greenwood has also been underwhelming so far with just 3 goals this season after having scored 17 in all competitions in 19/20. If those two can start finishing like their usual selves and support Rashford and Bruno in attack, United fans can expect even better attacking output from the team in the remainder of the season.
This viz maps progressive passes per 90 against progressive distance of thoses per 90 minutues. Alex Telles’ consistently aggressive crossing helps him top progressive distance while Bruno regularly looking for line-breaking passes and assists helps him top number of progressive passes. Nemanja Matic, Luke Shaw and United’s Centre-Backs ensure high progression even with lesser number of progressive passes. Donny Van De Beek and the forwards prefer less progressive passing.
This viz gives a good indication of United’s pressing strategy under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. It highlights how Bruno Fernandes and Fred are press-hungry at the cost of success % while Paul Pogba & Scott McTominay maintain a good balance. Luke Shaw and the centre-Backs prioritize success. It gives a general indication that the attackers don’t press too high, while Bruno and Fred have complete license to go overboard to win back possession and Pogba, McTominay Matic are expected to strike a controlled approach. The defence opts for safety over high pressing numbers. In short, Ole prefers winning the midfield battle the most.
This viz highlights player movements with the ball. Nemanja Matic stands out on both the number of carries per 90 and progression towards goal while Marcus Rashford and Daniel James boast high progression even with less number of carries.
Last but not the least, we take a look at the game-by-game trend of United’s expected goals and actual goals scored in the league so far. It’s clear that the red devils didn’t create enough against top 4 rivals Chelsea and Arsenal and weren’t good value for the win in both games. United should have scored at least one goal in the drab 0-0 draw against neighbors Manchester City. But the team showed great spirit in over-performing on xG to clinch wins against West Ham and Sheffield United even when the team wasn’t creative enough which shows a winning quality lacking in recent United sides against such clubs in the league.
In summary, much of the underlying numbers have indicated clear progress from last season and a genuine forward-thinking approach from Ole Gunnar Solksjaer which have rewarded him with good attacking displays and an unexpected title challenge in the league. The worries have been towards the defensive end where United have let in some goals cheaply often owing to set-pieces. Doubts also remain of United’s performance in big games this season after having done wonderfully well last season in such games. The last worry seems to be over-reliance on a few players. Days in which Bruno and Rashford are shut down result in poor attacking displays like against City in the Carabao cup. Ole will be looking for more from the likes of Martial, Greenwood, Wan-Bissaka and Pogba towards the latter of the season. Who knows, if the missing members step up and things go his way, Ole might be the first United manager post-SAF to make a genuine push for a league title towards the end of the season. As of now, United fans should take solace in knowing that the underlying numbers support the narrative of improvement from last season and they should expect more points in the league at the very least.
We continue our series following Sir Alex Ferguson’s journey in bringing Manchester United back to the top with the second leg of this 3-part series. We recount the years from his first title at the club to possibly the greatest moment of his career in 1999.
March to the first titles
As fate would have it, the rebranding of the English league to the Premier League coincided with the class of 1992 – Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Nicky Butt and David Beckham graduating to United’s first team. After a shortage of goals in the second half of the 1991-92 season cost United the league title, Ferguson was intent on signing a new striker. His key target was Southampton striker Alan Shearer, but he lost out to a newly promoted Blackburn Rovers side managed by Kenny Dalglish, who had managed Liverpool to three league titles and was backed by the millions of steel baron Jack Walker to bring similar success to the resurgent Lancashire club. Ferguson then switched his attention to Dion Dublin, the 23-year-old striker who had excelled in the lower divisions with Cambridge United. Dublin completed a £1 million move to Old Trafford to become United’s only summer season signing.
The first victory of the 1992-93 league season came only in the fourth game when a late goal by Dublin provided a 1–0 win at Southampton, but Dublin then broke his leg in the next game against Crystal Palace and was sidelined for six months. By late October United had endured a run of five successive draws and the all too familiar goal shortage was attributed to this once again. United sat at 10th place in the league by November 1992, with one of the lowest goal tallies in the division. United were linked with moves for some of the most highly rated strikers in the English league, including Brian Deane and David Hirst, but on 26 November 1992 United made a £1.1 million move for French striker Eric Cantona, who had helped Leeds United win the previous season’s league title. The arrival of Cantona transformed United, and by the turn of 1993 they were looking like title contenders again. Despite challenges from Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers and surprise contenders Norwich City, United went on a storming run during the final weeks of the season to win the title by a 10-point margin and end their 26-year wait (the last title being under Sir Matt Busby in 1967).
United broke the English transfer fee record over the summer of 1993 by paying relegated Nottingham Forest £3.75 million for Irish midfielder Roy Keane. United started the following season beating Arsenal on penalties in the FA Charity Shield. They led the Premier League at the end of August, a lead they maintained all season. By the end of October, they were 11 points ahead and their lead peaked at 16 points in the new year. Despite a second round exit from the UEFA Champions League, United had their sights set on a unique domestic treble. In March 1994, United dropped points against Arsenal and bottom-of-the-table Swindon Town, in which Cantona was sent off in both games and subsequently received a five-match suspension. They then lost the League Cup final to Aston Villa and nearly went out of the FA Cup in the semi-final at Wembley, before Mark Hughes scored a late equaliser to force a Maine Road replay, which United won 4–1. An upturn in results soon followed, and United clinched their title on 1 May 1994 when they won 2–1 at Ipswich Town. In the 1994 FA Cup Final, it was goalless at half time but two Cantona penalties and subsequent goals from Mark Hughes and Brian McClair gave United a comprehensive 4–0 win over Chelsea. Cantona finished the season with 25 goals in all competitions and was voted PFA Players’ Player of the Year. Other players to impress during this campaign included Mark Hughes, Paul Ince, Ryan Giggs and Lee Sharpe.
“You can’t win anything with kids”
Ferguson felt that his squad were good enough to challenge on all fronts in the season which followed the Double, and made only one signing, paying Blackburn Rovers £1.2 million for defender David May. The 1994–95 season saw United rarely out of the headlines. On 25 January 1995, Eric Cantona kicked a Crystal Palace fan who had taunted him with anti-French racist abuse. Cantona was suspended by the club for the rest of the season, a ban which the FA extended until the end of September. United were also without players like Paul Parker, Ryan Giggs and Andrei Kanchelskis for long periods of time due to injury. 1994–95 also saw the debuts of promising young players Paul Scholes and Phil Neville. Scholes was particularly impressive, scoring five goals in 17 games. Having made a handful of appearances between them in the previous two seasons, Gary Neville, David Beckham and Nicky Butt all made more regular appearances for United during 1994–95.
United broke the English transfer record again on 10 January 1995 by paying £7 million for Newcastle United’s free-scoring striker Andy Cole. He had been signed just two weeks before the Cantona incident as an eventual replacement for 31-year-old Mark Hughes. United almost made it three league titles in a row, but just couldn’t get the better of a West Ham side who held them to a 1–1 draw in East London on the final day of the season. Blackburn, led by Kenny Dalglish, were crowned champions. The FA Cup also slipped out of United’s grasp when they lost 1–0 to unfancied Everton in the final.
“Have you taken your eye off the ball?” asked Professor Sir Roland Smith, after Fergie had been summoned to the chairman’s Isle of Man home to discuss his request for a six-year deal. Smith’s suggestion that Ferguson should come back next year was not what the 54-year-old was hoping for. And chief executive Martin Edwards added insult to injury by warning Ferguson there would be no cushy boardroom job for him at the end of his tenure. “We don’t want a repeat of the Matt Busby syndrome,” Edwards is reported to have said. It is fair to say that Ferguson was not in a good place. His bid to become the first manager to defend the Double had ended in failure.
In the desolate dressing room at Wembley, Ferguson warned that any players who had let their team-mates down would not be around much longer. The manager shocked his board of directors by announcing that he planned to sell Paul Ince. The England midfielder might have been at the top of his game, but Ferguson felt he had become too big for his boots. Ince had christened himself ‘The Guv’nor’. His nickname was even stitched into his Predator boots. As Ferguson explained in his autobiography, “I had observed Paul closely for the past five months and decided his attitude and performances had altered to a degree that I could not tolerate. This Guv’nor thing should have been left in his toy box.” Ince was sold to Inter Milan for £6million and fan favourites Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis were to follow through the exit door. Ferguson was on holiday in the United States when he was told that Hughes had decided not to sign a new contract and had joined Chelsea instead.
United had lost three key players, and the club’s directors weren’t the only ones who felt Ferguson had lost the plot. When the opening game of the season was lost 3-1 at Aston Villa and Match of the Day pundit Alan Hansen famously declared United would win nothing with kids, thousands of fans voted in a poll run by the Manchester Evening News asking whether Ferguson should be sacked. The pressure mounted on Ferguson as the new season began without a major signing, with Ferguson instead putting his faith in young members of the squad such as David Beckham, Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt. This was seen as a big gamble, especially as the likes of Newcastle United, Liverpool and Arsenal had spent heavily, but Ferguson stuck to his decision. He mentioned in his autobiography, “It was clear I now had youngsters equipped to play at the highest level.” In September 1994, when United travelled to Port Vale in the League Cup, Ferguson unleashed the rest of the club’s 1992 FA Youth Cup winners. Ferguson recalled: “After that night at Port Vale there were protests in the House of Commons. One woman MP said I should be banned for life for not playing my strongest team when people had paid their £10 to get in.” United prevailed 2-1 at Vale Park, thanks to two goals by Scholes.
Aside from a New Year’s Day defeat at Tottenham Hotspur and a goalless draw at home to Aston Villa, United regained their winning touch after Christmas and reached the top of the Premier League in mid-March. Cantona was instrumental in many victories, and United remained firmly in control at the top and sealed the title on the last day of the season with a 3–0 win at Bryan Robson’s Middlesbrough. A week later, Manchester United beat Liverpool 1–0 in the FA Cup final to become the first ever English club to win the Double twice. Eric Cantona, who scored 19 goals in 1995–96 (including the FA Cup final winner), was voted FWA Footballer of the Year by football journalists and was made team captain following the departure of Steve Bruce to Birmingham City. Ferguson once again crossed the Irish Sea to speak to Professor Sir Roland Smith.
“Football, bloody hell”
In the summer of 1996, United once again tried to sign Alan Shearer, but were beaten to his signature by Newcastle United for a then world record fee of £15 million. A new striker did arrive at Old Trafford that summer – Ole Gunnar Solskjær, a little-known 23-year-old Norwegian striker. Another Norwegian, defender Ronny Johnsen, was also signed to fill the gap left by veteran Steve Bruce’s departure. Manchester United won their fourth league title in five seasons in 1996–97, helped by 18 goals from Solskjær. Hopes of winning the European Cup for the first time since 1968 were dashed, however, as they were defeated in the semi-finals by the eventual winners, Borussia Dortmund. At the end of the season, Eric Cantona announced his shock retirement from football just a few days before his 31st birthday. He was replaced by England international Teddy Sheringham, a £3.5 million signing from Tottenham.
A new adversary loomed in the form of Arsenal and their new boss Arsene Wenger. Although the pair would often have a fiery relationship in the press, Ferguson was full of praise for the Frenchman guiding the Gunners to the 1997-98 title, stating: “I think it’s good for my young players to lose on this occasion.” Shortly after this disappointment, Ferguson broke the club’s transfer record twice by signing Dutch defender Jaap Stam from PSV Eindhoven and Trinidadian striker Dwight Yorke from Aston Villa.
Ferguson’s words would ring true as in the following 1998-99 season United rose to the occasion and gained a reputation for not conceding defeat even in what seemed the most hopeless of circumstances, winning and drawing several matches with late goals. Ferguson himself called it ‘Squeaky Bum time’. Some of their more notable comebacks were the FA Cup Fourth Round tie at home to Liverpool, which Liverpool led from the third to the 85th minute, both legs of the UEFA Champions League semi-finals against Juventus and the FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal, won by a Ryan Giggs goal deep into extra time, forced by a last-gasp Peter Schmeichel penalty save in the last of his eight seasons at the club. However, the most dramatic comeback came in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich, when Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjær scored a goal each in stoppage time to give United a 2–1 win in stoppage time. After the game, Ferguson uttered one of his most famous phrases: “Football, bloody hell.” United lost just five times in the entire season; three times in the league, the Charity Shield at the start of the season, and the League Cup quarter-final to eventual winners, Tottenham Hotspur. They defeated every other Premier League team at least once in all competitions and were undefeated in the Champions League.
Fans and writers regard the treble haul as manager Alex Ferguson’s finest hour, although he dismissed that assertion in later years. Tens of thousands of fans lined the streets of Manchester to welcome the team as the season drew to a close. In recognition of his achievements Ferguson was awarded a knighthood, and handed the Freedom of the City of Glasgow in November 1999.By the end of the season, Manchester United had become the world’s richest football club and the most valuable sporting brand worldwide. Sir Alex Ferguson had well and truly converted United into a global force.
8th May 2013 – the date when Sir Alex Ferguson pulled down the curtains on his glorious 26 year adventure with Manchester United and football. During his time at Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson managed to win a total of 28 major trophies including 13 Premier Leagues, 5 FA Cups and 2 Champions League. He also got Manchester United the distinction of being the only English side to ever complete the treble when current Manchester United manager scored the famous late winner against Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final. ‘The greatest manager ever’, as they say about Ferguson and although it’s up for debate you wouldn’t have a conversation about it without mentioning Sir Alex.
However, it wasn’t always the case for Ferguson. His first 4 years as Manchester United weren’t all about trophies but rather marred with inconsistencies and a lot of doubts. There is a famous newspaper clipping with the title ‘Fergie must go’ signifying the fact that fans weren’t happy with Ferguson’s first 3 and a half seasons as Manchester United manager. In fact, it is widely noted that the FA Cup final victory over Crystal Palace in 1990 which saved Ferguson’s job as Manchester United manager.
Today, we take a look at his lesser known years as Manchester United manager.
Sir Alex Ferguson or just Alex Ferguson at the time, began his manager career in Scotland with St. Mirren in the Scottish second division. He was their manager from 1974 to 1978 and took them from lower table obscurity in the second division to league champions in 1977. The average age of that St.Mirren squad was 19 and their captain, Tony Fitzpatrick, was 20. A superb achievement for Ferguson who himself could be considered young for a manager at just 36. In 1978, Ferguson jumped ships to go and manage Aberdeen. There was a lot of speculation and rumours that Ferguson had already taken the Aberdeen job and owing to that St.Mirren decided to sack Ferguson becoming the only club ever to sack Alex Ferguson.
At Aberdeen, the Scottishman managed to win the league title in the 1979-80 season. This was the first time a team rather than the Glasgow clubs (Celtic and Rangers) had won the Scottish Premiership in 15 years. Ferguson created a siege mentality at Aberdeen accusing the media of being biased towards Celtic and Rangers and used that to motivate his own team. ‘Furious Fergie’ was the nickname given to him by the Aberdeen players. The success at Aberdeen continued, with him winning the Scottish cup in 1982.
The following season, he led Aberdeen to even more success by winning the European Cup Winners’ Cup, knocking out the likes of Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. Aberdeen won the league for a further 2 seasons under Fergie. In 1986, he made his intentions clear that he wanted to leave Aberdeen. He managed Scotland in the 1986 World cup but after a group stage exit, he decided to step down as Scotland manager.
After rejecting job offers from Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Wolverhampton Wanderers, Sir Alex Ferguson was appointed as the Manchester United manager on 6th November 1986, taking over from Ron Atkinson.
An inconsistent start
There is a challenge called the “Sir Alex Ferguson challenge” popular among Football Manager players where you take over the team which is 19th in the Premier League on 6th November and try to replicate the success SAF had. That was the situation Ferguson was tasked with. Manchester United were 19th after finishing 2nd last season and were struggling. Ferguson guided them to an 11th placed finish and brought back some long needed stability to the club.
The following season was great for Ferguson. He made his first signings at the club, Viv Andersen from Arsenal and striker Brian McClair from Celtic.He guided the red devils to a first second placed finish in 7 years but United were way off the standards of Liverpool and Fergie knew it. A home defeat in the FA Cup quarter finals against Nottingham forest was a bitter mark at a rather optimistic campaign.
The optimism among the Manchester United faithful grew at the start of the 1988-89 as Mark ‘Sparky’ Hughes returned to the club. Ferguson also signed a 17 year old Lee Sharpe from Torquay United and goalkeeper Jim Leighton from Ferguson’s former club Aberdeen. A 6-game winning run in January saw the red devils climb upto 3rd in the league table but a drastic collapse in form saw them go down the table and eventually finish 11th.
Fergie was ruthless and responded to this by making new signings such as Mike Phelan, Neil Webb, Danny Wallace, Paul Ince and a club record signing in Gary Pallister. This saw fan favourites and stalwarts of the Atkinson era, Gordon Strachan, Jesper Olsen, Paul McGrath and Norman Whiteside leaving the club.
Silencing the Critics
The clearing out of fan favourites was met with a lot of backlash from fans but the fans from the outside still believed in the rebuild project at Old Trafford. A 4-1 win over champions Arsenal on the opening day fuelled some optimism among the Old Trafford faithfuls but a dip in form and the new signings failing to impress led to many reports in November that Ferguson’s time could be up.
“3 YEARS OF EXCUSES AND IT’S STILL C**P – TA RA FERGIE”. This was the famous banner floated around Manchester. A heavy 5-1 defeat against local rivals Manchester City and being booed off the pitch against Spurs made things worse and it wasn’t hard to see why. United’s form in the league was awful which was showcased by the fact that they finished only 13th in the league. Fans were not happy, the media was on Fergie’s back and it looked like the inevitable might happen after all.
“We were hearing things the night before we went to play Nottingham Forest. You hear these rumours – ‘If we don’t win today the gaffer could go.’ We were struggling in the league. Mark Robins scores and people say that saved his job,” Paul Ince recounted.
The 1-0 victory over Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup quarter final was what, many say, saved Ferguson’s job at Old Trafford. But the board during the time constantly reassured that his job was never under threat at the time but if the team didn’t show any improvements towards the end of the season then they would’ve been forced to take a call.
To be fair to Manchester United, they were doing quite well in the cups. They got all the draws away from home in the cup competitions and did well to win them and reach the final against Crystal Place. This was it, the defining moment of the season, a match that would make or break Ferguson’s legacy at Manchester United. And it’s moments like this that force a manager to make the tough calls and Fergie was prepared to make one.
Jim Leighton, the goalkeeper who brought so much success for Ferguson at Aberdeen was underperforming and not justifying his place. Ferguson would have smashed the Guillotine over Leighton’s head long before he actually did if his assistant, Archie Knox, had not intervened. But after being caught in no man’s land for the first Crystal Palace goal in the 3-3 draw, Ferguson was left with no choice for the replay.
On loan Luton Town goalkeeper Les Sealey would be the first choice for the replay. Ferguson described him as ‘arrogant’ and ‘cocky’. He wrote: “Was he a better goalkeeper than Jim? No, but he thought he was, and that can sometimes be important in a Cup final.”
It proved to be the right decision. United won 2-1 in the replay claiming the first trophy of the Ferguson era and the floodgates then began. The ban for English teams playing in the European competitions was lifted and United qualified and won the Cup Winners’ Cup next season. They finished 2nd in the league in the 1990/91 season behind rivals Leeds United. That season was then followed by the first league win under Sir Alex Ferguson in the 1991/92 season, thanks to two dramatic late goals by Steve Bruce against Sheffield Wednesday on the final day of the season.
Per game stats: Tackles: 2.1 Interceptions: 2 Clearances: 1.6 Dribbled past: 0.7 Dispossesed: 0.1 Bad controls: 1.2 Key passes: 0.2 Dribbles: 0.3 Crosses: 0.2 Long balls: 1.6 Pass%: 83%
Failing to impress Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at United, Dalot’s loan spell at AC Milan has resulted in another period of being unable to convince the manager for game time. Stefano Pioli has settled on a 4-2-3-1 with the fullback roles being dominated by Calabria and Theo Hernandez. Among Dalot’s 7 starts, 6 have come in the Europa League clearly indicating his role as the cup option. He’s played equally on both sides of a back 4 impressing a lot more from left back where Milan have a shortage of options. All 3 of Dalot’s goal contributions have come from left back in the Europa League against the same opponent.
His game of the season so far was against Sparta Prague on 29th Oct where he scored and assisted in a 3-0 win. The reverse leg away to Sparta saw him pick up an assist as well. That game was followed by Dalot’s first start in the league against Genoa on December 16th at left back. The Portuguese had a torrid time in a 2-2 draw. His defensive fragility allowed striker Destro to attack repeatedly. Even the Europa game against Celtic saw Dalot’s poor positioning keep his man onside during Celtic’s second goal. In a roaring campaign that has largely gone to plan for Sampaoli’s men, Dalot’s mistakes stand out. Facing fixture congestion, the coming few weeks will be key for Dalot to impress and be counted as a valuable squad member.
Given manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s lack of faith in Diogo Dalot and recent rumours of a move for Trippier to provide competition for Wan-Bissaka, United will be hoping Dalot impresses enough on his loan spell for Milan to put in a transfer bid. It has been claimed that the Rossoneri usually assess their loanees during the spring and are keen to stick to that policy in an attempt to afford themselves more time to consider Dalot. Dalot spoke to Sky Italia last week: “Let’s see what happens at the end of the season. For now I don’t want to think about that: I am 100% focused on Milan and that’s it.”
Loan spell score so far: 5/10
James Garner (Watford)
Starts: 13 Subs: 6 Mins: 1091 Positions played: CM, AM Assists: 1 MOTM: 1
Per game stats: Tackles: 0.9 Interceptions: 0.7 Clearances: 0.8 Dribbled past: 0.9 Dispossesed: 0.4 Bad controls: 1.1 Shots: 1.1 Key passes: 0.8 Dribbles: 0.5 Crosses: 1.1 Long balls: 1.2 Pass%: 81%
Garner has been a regular feature for Watford starting 13 of the 22 games they have played so far. The majority of the unfeatured games and substitute appearances were towards the start of the campaign while he was settling in. Garner has started 8 of the last 9 games for the Hornets. Watford recently sacked manager Vladimir Ivic after just 4 months in charge following their 2-0 loss to Huddersfield on Dec 19th. Under Ivic, Watford played a 5-3-2 with 3 central midfielders. With Chalobah occupying the deepest role, Garner has often found himself playing a right-sided box-to-box role, alongside ex-United Tom Cleverly, with license to roam, create and shoot which explain his high shooting, crossing and long ball numbers. Garner’s game of the season so far came against Coventry in November where he ran the show with 2 dribbles, 3 key passes and one assist in an emphatic comeback 3-2 win. He was pushed to AM in one substitute appearance against Barnsley as Watford were chasing the game but has largely stuck to his B2B CM role other than that.
Watford’s season hasn’t gone to plan as they find themselves 5th in the Championship in a year they desperately want to get back to the Premier League. Goal scoring has been an issue with only 23 goals scored in 20 games with ex-manager Ivic’s defensive 5-3-2 being targeted regularly by fans. Watford announced Xisco Munoz as their new head coach on 21st December who comes with a reputation of playing an attack-minded 4-2-3-1. It remains to be seen how this will affect Garner’s game time and performances, but given how the 19 year old has adapted so far, fans can remain positive of his continued development on loan and the chance to challenge for a first-team spot at United from next season.
Per game stats: Tackles: 0.9 Interceptions: 0.3 Dispossesed: 0.7 Bad controls: 1.4 Shots: 0.8 Key passes: 0.5 Dribbles: 0.8 Crosses: 0.1 Long balls: 0.4 Pass%: 67%
Game time has been a major issue for Chong having featured for only 309 minutes in 1260 minutes of Werder Bremen’s season so far. Bremen have played mostly in a back 3 with Rashica and Bittencourt supporting striker Sargent in attack. With attackers Fulkrug, Osako and Schmid also featuring as rotation options, Chong has been held back only for occasions when Bremen deploy a back 4. Life at Bremen began with a bang as Chong’s first appearance in September saw him dribble past 2 defenders and finish from the right wing in the DFB Pokal opener. That initial high proved to be a false dawn.
He started on the left side of a 4231 against Frankfurt rounding up a poor performance which saw him get dispossesed 3 times and unable to contribute in attack. He started as a right sided CAM in a 4-2-2-2 against Berlin where he attempted 4 dribbles but was unable to dictate play. His 3rd start came in December against Stuttgart on the left of a 4-2-3-1 again which saw him put up his worst performance of the season with 3 shots off target and 3 dispossesed moments. On the 7 occasions Chong came on as a substitute, 4 offered him less than 5 minutes each on the pitch while 2 were 17 minute cameos where he was unable to impact the game. His latest sub appearance fared better. On Dec 19th, he came on against Mainz to provide an assist for the winner in a crucial 1-0 win. Fans will be hoping this can spark a turnaround in the fortunes of the Dutchman if he is to have any future for the red devils.
Loan spell score so far: 3/10
Andreas Pereira (Lazio)
Starts: 2 Subs: 11 Mins: 319 Positions played: CM, AM Goals: 1
Per game stats: Tackles: 0.6 Dribbled past: 0.6 Shots: 0.7 Key passes: 0.3 Dribbles: 0.3 Dispossesed: 0.5 Bad controls: 0.6 Crosses: 0.2 Long balls: 0.8 Through balls: 0.1 Pass%: 75%
Another one who has struggled for game time, Andreas’ plans to impress on loan and earn a move away from United – where Ole Gunnar Solskjaer seems to be enjoying the headache of choosing between Bruno, Van de Beek and Pogba for his role – hasn’t gone to plan so far. Lazio’s famous 3-5-2 system has seen manager Simone Inzaghi stick to Milinkovic-Savic and Luis Alberto ahead of Leiva in a mid 3. In fact, one of Andreas’ appearances was in a midfield diamond ahead of these 3, such is the unwillingness to drop them. With Parolo, Cataldi and Escalante serving as rotation competitors as well, Andreas has been forced into largely being an impact sub featuring in 319 out of 1710 minutes so far.
Andreas’ first start in the league actually saw him score against Torino in November. But being 2-1 down and carrying a yellow card saw him substituted at half time which would eventually pave the way for a comeback 4-3 win. The decision was fair given he was dribbled past 3 times and gave away the ball cheaply often as well. A series of games followed where Andreas would get substitute runs of less than 20 minutes on the pitch and being unable to provide any impact. His next start in the league came against Spezia. This time he was given the full 90 minutes playing at the head of a diamond ahead of the 3 preferred starters. But Andreas was unable to take his chance to impress, the result of which has seen him get no further starts till date and even lesser time in his substitute appearances, the last 4 of which don’t even add up to 30 minutes in total. It’s only getting worse for the 24 year old and for United, who would have hoped for a better loan spell to be able to sell him for value.
A flashback to November 21, 2017. Manchester United were having a tough time breaking down lowly Huddersfield as they trailed 1-0 and were forced to make a defensive sub thanks to Phil Jones’ injury. Victor Lindelof came on and within just 10 minutes found himself forced into a sticky situation from goalkeeper Jonas Lossl’s long clearance. Lindelof missed the header, allowing Depoitre to sweep up the easy loose ball and make it 2-0. Paul Merson said on Soccer Saturday after the game: “The lad Lindelof came on, and wow. If you watch Christopher Schindler for Huddersfield, you’d take him all day long over Lindelof.” The error marked the latest in a string of defensive mistakes that led to manager Mourinho becoming reluctant to give Lindelof a Premier League start until 6 months after signing him in the summer of 2017. Fans were already calling for the sale of the Swede in a bid to recoup the £31m fee, which they clearly felt was a bad investment.
Fast forward to the present and Victor Lindelof is one of the first names on the team sheet for Manchester United. A forced half-time withdrawal against Istanbul this week in the Champions League thanks to a niggling back injury was lamented by fans as they prayed for his recovery and fitness in time for the weekend clash against Southampton. The perception of Lindelof has come a full 360 and after more than 2 years of consistent performances, the £31m fee is starting to look more like a bargain than wasted investment. Forget Christopher Schindler, most United fans would not swap Lindelof even for Toby Alderweireld now. The ‘iceman’, a nickname popularised by United fans, has been credited in bringing the Red Devils out of the Jones-Smalling era and form a more progressive partnership with Harry Maguire to great effect. We analyse the importance of Lindelof and why he is one of the most underrated cogs in the current United machine.
Journey so far:
It was in the second-half of 2015-16 that Lindelof began playing regularly for the Benfica senior team and ultimately earned a callup from the Sweden senior team to be a part of their squad for Euro 2016. His stock has steadily been on the rise ever since and earned him a transfer to United in the summer of 2017.
After an initially rocky start in Manchester, with Eric Bailly being the preferred option, Lindelof has slowly become the mainstay in the Manchester United XI while Bailly has spent most of his time on the shelf with injuries. In the 2018/19 campaign, Lindelof asserted himself as United’s best centre-back option. He was the leader in the defence making 30 league appearances. He thrived as confidence was put in him to be the number one centre-back. But a few errors at the start of the 19/20 campaign brought back doubts on his ability. He was beaten in the air for Crystal Palace’s first goal when they wound up 2-1 winners at Old Trafford in August, and the same happened again when he was completely out-jumped by Jannik Vestergaard as Southampton held United to a 1-1 draw the following month. But, as his understanding with new partner Harry Maguire kept growing, the duo fell upon a formula which covered for both players’ weaknesses and enhanced their strengths. The remainder of the season saw Lindelof put together another impressive run which played a huge part in United climbing up in the league to finish at an impressive 3rd place. Lindelof started 35 out of a possible 38 Premier League games and only conceded 32 goals, which was an improvement over the 2018/19 season where he conceded 40 goals in 30 starts.
Harry Maguire summed it up perfectly in a MUTV interview before the end of the 19/20 season: ”We’ve had a good season up to now together. When you form partnerships, it takes time. I’m learning his game and he’s learning mine and I think we’re getting better. We’re keeping a lot more clean sheets than we were at the start of the season. We’ve had a couple of great goals scored against us from outside the box, but we haven’t really been having games where David [De Gea] has had to make saves apart from maybe the Carabao Cup second leg against City when David was brilliant. It’s a partnership that’s building and I think we’ll get better and better, and start keeping more clean sheets like we have been doing recently.”
United fans were ambushed with a quick reminder of his weakness towards the end of the season as Lindelof was to blame (along with Wan-Bissaka) for the goal against Sevilla that brought to fore a furious argument with Bruno Fernandes. But, in the larger scheme of things 19/20 marked the end of 2 consistently solid seasons for the Swede.
His impressive stats and the way he has fought tooth and nail for his spot at Manchester United since 2017 haven’t gone unnoticed, earning him a new deal in September 2019. The 20/21 season hasn’t offered up much for analysis so far as Lindelof has had a stop-start season thanks to his back injury. After a frustrating start shipping goals against Palace and Brighton, the Iceman has found his usual groove with imperious displays against PSG, Chelsea, RBL and Arsenal.
Lindelof is clearly a ball-playing defender but his pace, composure and game-reading make him very suitable to play as a cover defender. Most modern centre-back pairings operate in a stopper-cover partnership. The stopper is the one who aggressively engages in duels with attackers and often steps into the DM area to win the ball early before the clear-cut chance can be created by the opponents while the cover CB drops deeper to sweep up the loose balls and contest the duels that the stopper misses. The relevance for this style of partnership has only increased in modern times as many attackers are adept at dropping in the hole to create (like Firmino, Messi, Kane) as they draw out defenders and create space for their more attacking partners (like Salah, Suarez, Son) to attack the space. With the stopper-cover setup, the stopper engages the former type while the cover player tracks the latter type to give the team a double opportunity to weed out threats. For reference, Ferdinand Cover and Vidic Stopper or Ramos stopper and Varane cover would be good examples.
For Manchester United, Maguire is the clear stopper and enjoys stepping into midfield to contest with opponents. His strong frame and heading ability make him a great asset to win the ball early and stop opponent moves while his lack of pace and agility are also made up for when he engages early without giving the attacker a chance to collect the ball and run at him. In contrast, Lindelof avoids the early aerial scruff and drops patiently to pick up the quick poacher or loose ball from Maguire’s duel. This often puts him in the right place to sweep up balls with control and calm or contest a forward’s dribble or pacey run which he is well suited to win most of the time. On the rare occasions Maguire is dribbled past or Lindelof is forced into an aerial battle which he loses, United concede a chance. But given the combinations and the fact that both players are adept defenders, this leads to very few chances on goal. As a duo, Maguire and Lindelof’s combined individual errors leading to goals was 0 in 19/20 which was the best in the Premier League. They also let in the least through balls from open play into the D box in the league. While either may not have been as good as Virgil Van Dijk individually, together they have been as good as any CB pairing in Europe in 19/20.
A good example of their combination is the game against Everton where Maguire went ahead to engage the midfielder while Lindelof smartly tracked the run of the incoming winger. Maguire lost the duel getting stranded ahead and the ball was played perfectly in the danger area but Lindelof’s reading and pace enabled him to cut across and clear the ball before it entered the D box.
Lindelof is a strong ball-player constantly looking for line-breaking passes that find midfielders and attackers in good positions. While finding the holding midfielder with a quick short pass or spreading the play with a through ball on the wings to the fullback is like bread and butter for him, he also possesses the vision and technique to pick out the front 3 with a perfect midfield-splitting grounded ball.
A good example is against Wolves last season where Lindelof stepped in to stop the danger, trapped the ball perfectly before giving himself time to pick out a free player in a dangerous situation where he was being pressed before finally finding Jesse Lingard, who dropped deep to help, with a precise pass through the crowd.
Lindelof always keeps looking for more direct routes to goal as evidenced by this move against WBA where instead of opting for the conservative pass to the right-back, he dribbles forward and finds striker Martial with a quick grounded pass.
Another example of his directness and technique against Burnley as he goes wide on the right before belting a strong grounded pass through the midfield to find striker Martial once again:
His technique and vision aren’t limited to his right foot alone as in this example he receives the ball in a high-pressed crowded area near his D before turning and releasing the attacker on the halfway line with a left-footed through ball, turning a dangerous situation for United into an opportunity to counter.
In 2018/19, Lindelof finished the Premier League campaign with no errors leading to goals, a 68% tackle success rate and just one yellow card. In 19/20, he was even more impressive with a 98% tackle success rate which was the highest in the league. He again finished the league season with 0 errors leading to goals. What Victor lacks in strength and aerial ability, he makes up for with a proficient reading of the game. The Swede is intelligent, and knows when to make that slide challenge and when not to. In the 19/20 season, he made 170 recoveries and won 103 duels in the Premier League, which is testament to his reading of the game. His dribbled past stat per game was 0.3 in 18/19 and 0.1 in 19/20, both being second in league after Van Dijk, who had been having Ballon D’or level seasons. Lindelof’s dispossessed stat (Times player was dispossessed of the ball by an opponent) is consistently just 0.1 across the last 3 seasons which is a league leader stat, showing his strength on the ball. It is also telling how accurate and reliable Lindelof is during the tackle. He picked up only 1 yellow card in his senior Benfica career while his total yellow cards for Manchester United are only 9. The Swede is yet to be shown the red card in his playing career.
Lindelof is a performer for the big stage. His performances against sides like Juventus, RBL and Paris Saint Germain were really commendable as he marshalled the likes of Mbappe with ease. The Swede can be called the quintessential big-game defender as he defends calmly against technically-gifted world-class forwards retaining confidence and composure in his pace and game-reading. Lindelof’s fitness and consistency is a largely underrated factor. Given the injury issues of Jones and Bailly, United badly needed someone resilient, robust and stable and Lindelof is all of that. He started 79 out of a possible 93 games in all competitions over the 18/19 and 19/20 seasons, mostly being rested because of chances to Tuanzebe and Bailly in Europa or Cup games. After being overplayed by club and country without any pre-season or rest this year, the Swede has picked up a back injury after 2.5 years of first-class fitness. But such is his tenacity and natural fitness that he’s managed to appear for Sweden and United even with the back niggle. He has become one of the players fans can always count on to be fit and ready most of the time.
It’s an obvious issue that needs addressing; as much as Lindelof likes to command play from the floor, a core weakness is his aerial abilities which has proved costly a few times now. The fact that Maguire is aerially sound doesn’t help his cause, either. Errors in the air as a centre-back aren’t taken well, which has often led to harsh finger-pointing by fans in Lindelof’s case. Ironically, Lindelof looks more confident keeping up with top-class attackers like Aubameyang or Neymar than contesting a looping header against Olivier Giroud or Troy Deeney. But, there is a clear growth trend even in this department as his aerial mistakes have only reduced since his arrival at the club. Lindelof’s aerial duels won per game in the league were 1.3 in 17/18, 2.3 in 18/19 & 2.7 in 19/20. Having just turned 25, it is clear he has been working hard with the aim of cutting down those errors completely from his game and wants to become the complete finished product for the next few years.
For a defender who just turned 26 years old, Lindelof’s best years are only ahead of him. Showing considerable growth and consistency in the 3.5 years he has been at United, the Swede is starting to look more and more like the capable centre-back United fans have been craving for since the Ferdinand-Vidic days. A good comparison to his growth can be made with Gerard Pique. Like Lindelof, Pique started off as an agile, lanky ball-player who was very quick, composed and reliable on the ball but made the occasional mistake in aerial battles often leaving them to his stopper partner Puyol during his early days. But as Pique entered his peak and earned more responsibility, he developed to weed out those issues from his game and has now become a key figure for Barcelona over the past decade. Lindelof can take a few notes from this growth pattern since he seems to be walking on the same path. There is no stopping Lindelof being a world-class elite footballer if he continues his improvement and grows as a defender. The iceman has the potential to reach the snow-capped heights every defender dreams of.