Mid-season report: The numbers behind MUFC

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.

 

 [Goals vs G-xG, EPL 20/21]

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.

 

 [Goals vs G-xG, MUFC in all comps 20/21]

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.

 

 [Progressive passes vs Progressive Distance,MUFC 20/21]

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.

 

[Pressures per 90 vs Pressure success %, MUFC all comps 20/21]

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.

[Carries vs Progressive Distance, MUFC 20/21]

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.

[MUFC Goals & Expected goals Trend in EPL 20/21]

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.

The path to the perch, Part 2: 1992-1999

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.

 

Sir Alex Ferguson, Mark Hughes and Sir Bobby Charlton of Manchester United celebrates in the dressing room with the Premiership Trophy after becoming FA Carling Premiership Winners in the 1993-94 season at Old Trafford on May 8, 1994. Manchester United 0 Coventry City 0 (Photo by John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)

“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.

 

 Manchester United’s Ryan Giggs walks dejectedly off the Wembley pitch after his team lost in the Cup Final, watched by manager Alex Ferguson (Photo by Bob Thomas Sports Photography via Getty Images)

“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.

 

 Eric Cantona and manager Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United with the FA Cup and Premiership Trophy at Victoria Station, Manchester on May 12, 1996 after completing The Double. (Photo by John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)

“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.

 

 Raimond van der Gouw, Wes Brown, Jaap Stam, Jonathan Greening, Andy Cole, David Beckham, David May, Alex Ferguson head coach, Ryan Giggs, Denis Irwin, Teddy Sheringham and Gary Neville celebrate his victory with the trophy during the UEFA Champions league final match between Manchester United and Bayern Munich on May 26, 1999 in Camp Nou, Barcelona, Spain. (photo by Alain Gadoffre / Onze / Icon Sport via Getty Images)

The path to the perch, Part 1: 1986-1991

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. 


Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson in his office, circa December 1986. (Photo by Harry Goodwin/Paul Popper/Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images)

Early Career

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. 


Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson pictured in an office at Old Trafford circa 1986 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Rusty Cheyne/Allsport/Getty Images)

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. 


Alex Ferguson (centre) flanked by his new signings, Viv Anderson (left) form Arsenal and Brian McClair from Celtic at Old Trafford. (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)

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. 

And the rest, as they say, is history. 

The Importance of Victor Lindelof

The Importance of Victor Lindelof

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. 

 

Tactical Analysis:

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.

 

 

 

Strengths:

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.  

Weakness:

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.

 

The Importance of Bruno Fernandes

It was around 30 mins into the Manchester derby at Old Trafford when the ball went out for a Manchester City throw in and the man wearing no.18 on his back had an exchange of words with the City manager, Pep Guardiola. A bit of back and forth ended with Bruno Fernandes practically shushing the Catalonian. A short 5 second altercation showed exactly what Manchester United were missing prior to the Portuguese’s arrival in the January transfer window. 

Manchester United’s 19/20 season up until the end of the January transfer window had been a huge roller coaster ride. This was a team which could go toe-to-toe with Europe’s finest on their day but fail to win a match they should be comfortably winning on some other day. The young squad assembled by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had potential which was clear to see, but after a few good performances and results, their inconsistent form again dipped and a 2-0 loss to Burnley showcased just how poor United looked on their bad days. The performance was lacklustre and uninspiring much like the season till that point, and if United were down, there was usually no coming back from it. 

“When the going gets tough, the tough gets going” – United lacked someone ‘tough’. A strong personality, a vocal leader, someone who can make a difference when the chips are down and in that process rally everyone around him too. The 2-0 loss to Burnley was followed by United acting swiftly in the transfer window and securing the signature of Bruno Fernandes from Sporting Lisbon for a reported 47m pounds fee (excluding add-ons). Fernandes made his Manchester United debut the following weekend against Wolves at Old Trafford and his impact was easily seen. 

The match ended 0-0 but Fernandes was the best player on the pitch. Constantly demanding the ball, finding pockets of spaces to drift into, Bruno was taking charge. In fact, he was even constantly instructing and talking to teammates and telling them what to do, something about his personality that is known by everyone close to him. This was the type of impact he had after training only for a single day. The goalless draw was followed by 2 consecutive league wins against Chelsea and Watford with Fernandes having a say in both those games. Early signs suggested that the red devils had made a wise investment. Two comfortable wins in the FA Cup and Europa League and a tough draw at Goodison Park followed and then it was time for the Manchester derby.

Fernandes had set up Anthony Martial from a quick freekick earlier in the game and then came the altercation with Guardiola. It was at that moment some started to think United had finally found their talisman, their leader, their ‘strong personality’ in the dressing room. The match ended with United winning 2-0 and they looked comfortable in doing so. The 26 year old’s impact had made the team play better and everything around Old Trafford looked like it was falling into place.

The Derby was the last game played at Old Trafford before the pandemic put a stop on all the footballing activities. After the resumption of football, Manchester United were arguably the best team in the league for the remainder of the season.

Manchester United went unbeaten for the remainder of the campaign upon resumption. In fact, the red devils didn’t lose a single game in the league since Fernandes made his debut against Wolves on the deadline day of the winter transfer window. The first match they lost which involved the Portugese was the 3-1 defeat to Crystal Place on the opening day of the 2020/21 season. His immediate impact was for everyone to see. The 26 year old contributed to 8 goals and 7 assists in the Premier League last season, no other midfielder in the league contributed to more since his debut last season. 

Bruno Fernandes has now scored 18 goals and provided 13 assists for Manchester United in 33 appearances across all competitions, that’s 31 goal involvements in 33 appearances – an outstanding record. In the Premier League, he has scored 13 goals, only Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah has scored more since Fernandes made his debut. He became notorious for ‘only scoring penalties’ towards the end of last season but he has scored more non-penalty goals than any other midfielder in the league since he made his debut. 

If we look past the goals and assists, he also became the first Manchester United player to win back to back Premier League Player of the month awards since Cristiano Ronaldo and was also named as Manchester United’s player of the year despite having been here only for half the campaign. Fernandes also has won 5 man of the match awards for Manchester United so far. He also has a 4.4 sca/p90 which ranks him 10th in the league. SCA means shot creating actions such as a pass, dribble or even a tackle.

Courtesy of Statsbomb and football Slices, Fernandes’ percentile rank compared to the midfielders in Europe’s top 5 leagues is exceptional. 

Some of the stats like the pass completion rate or his non-penalty xG per shot may look a bit low but that showcases his playing style. The Portuguese isn’t afraid to take risks. If there is even a slight chance of setting someone through on goal or even if he gets half a yard of space from a shooting area, he will go for it. 

In football, the great players have this exceptional ability to make everyone think that something is going to happen when they have the ball. Fernandes is one of them. He constantly demands the ball is played to him and wants everything to go through him. Players around Fernandes are prepared to go the extra mile too, making constant runs and finding spaces in dangerous areas for the 26 year old to pick them out with a pass, because they know he has the ability to do exactly that. 

Tactical Analysis

Francesco Guidolin managed Bruno Fernandes when he was at Udinese and the Italian manager claims that Fernandes is one of the most intelligent players he has ever managed. He isn’t the only one to heap praise on the Portugese midfielder, the sporting director who took Fernandes from Boavista’s academy to Novora says “he is the most intelligent person I have ever met”. From using post-it notes to learn new languages and watching the replays of his games right after it is over, Fernandes uses every shred of his brain and his natural talent to become the player he is. 

It is easy to see how intelligent he is. For example, the goal he scored against Newcastle shows how well he reads the game. 

Here, he starts United’s counter attack intelligently linking up with van de Beek with a backheel and sets of running. Van de Beek passes to Mata, who releases Rashford and the counter attack is in motion. 

Rashford receives the ball wide left and continues running into the vacant space which prompts Fernandes to go inside in case the Englishman decides to run it wide and put in a cross. 

Instead, Marcus Rashford decides to cut in and take on Jamaal Lascelles which makes Fernandes make a move towards the outside. In the image, the moment Rashford goes inside, Fernandes starts going towards the outside. 

The Portuguese continues his run and Rashford expertly finds him after drawing 3 defenders towards him. Fernandes then takes a touch and then finishes it into the top corner beating Karl Darlow. 

He reads and understands the game very well and even if his stats seem unbelievable, he can impact games and goals without being directly involved in the goals as well. 

In the 3rd goal that Anthony Martial scored against Sheffield United last season, Fernandes didn’t have an assist but was still involved heavily. 

He receives the ball from deep through Paul Pogba and instantly gives it to Martial behind with an expertly executed backheel, catching the Sheffield United defenders off guard. 

He then makes a move towards the box while Martial finds Rashford out wide in the left side half space. 

He sees Martial making a run inside the box and instantly drops back to provide another passing option to Rashford. 

This catches defender John Egan off guard, who is left ball watching and fails to cover Martial who expertly chips the keeper to complete his hattrick. 

One largely underrated aspect of Fernandes’ style of play is his heading ability and his ability to get into positions of scoring a free header. Now his heading ability isn’t as polished as that of the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo or Robert Lewandowski but his movement and his ability to understand the game allows him to find spaces in order to find a free header inside the box. 

He scored a headed goal against Everton by sliding in between the two centre backs and connecting from a Luke Shaw cross. 

Here, he is inside the box waiting for Shaw to deliver a cross, as soon as Shaw puts his foot to the ball, Fernandes flicks on the switch and makes a run in between the CBs

He meets the cross, fairly unmarked and then slots it home beating Jordan Pickford in the Everton goal. 

What makes Bruno Fernandes so special is his hunger and drive to always improve and be better. “He wants to be the best”, says Giraetta, speaking to Jack Lang for The Athletic. He watches his games in their entirety as soon as he reaches home, even if it’s 2:30 in the morning. He watches them irrespective of the result, when they have won, drawn or when they have lost. Especially, when they have lost. He has a constant drive to become better than he already is. 

For people close to him, they have said he has always been like this. It doesn’t matter if Bruno is playing street football with his elder brother and his mates or if he’s playing with Cristiano Ronaldo for the national team, if there is something he doesn’t agree with, he will say it. He is expressive, an extrovert, and very blunt about his feelings. When Luuk de Jong scored the winner to take Sevilla to the Europa League finals and knock Manchester United out of the competition in the process, a footage was floated around the social media sites of him arguing with Victor Lindelof. Another footage came across when he was seen kicking the door, much to the dislike of the security guard present, after he was sent off in a match he played for Sporting Lisbon. “I’ll pay for the door, you can go f*** yourself” were the words coming out of the 26 year old’s mouth. A true indictment of his personality, he just cannot keep it inside. 

The altercation with Pep Guardiola is no different and that moment totally summed up what Bruno Fernandes is all about and what Manchester United had been missing prior to his arrival. A strong personality who will constantly expect better from himself and from those around him and won’t be afraid to speak up whenever required. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said Bruno Fernandes brings the ‘X-Factor’ to the team and it’s easy to see how. 

If there ever was a “Manchester United player” then Bruno Fernandes is the best player to express. His high risk, high reward style of play, his relentless work rate, his constant drive to win the ball back and demanding the ball is played to him, he is everything that Manchester United players of the old were – a fighter. Fernandes is a fighter on and off the pitch and he won’t settle for anything but the best.

Fernandes isn’t fazed by the pressure that comes with the price tag or the expectations of the fans. He does his job and whenever his team needs someone to step up, he is the one to do it. Maybe he relishes the responsibility, maybe he thrives when the odds are stacked against him. 

Manchester United may have finally found their talisman in their journey back to the top. After all, the fans haven’t named him the ‘The Portugese Magnifico’ for no reason.