Search for a CM: Bruno Guimaraes

 

We re-launched our “Search for a CM” series last month thanks to United’s inability to close the much-needed midfield gap for a long time. Here is the article where we used data to come up with a shortlist of 7 mids who are perfect fits in United’s midfield. Today we are going to analyze the top option in that shortlist and judge whether he really is the best option in the market or not. Is another Brazilian to partner Fred the elite solution for us? Is a transfer from Ligue 1 to United a bigger step up than expected? Does he have some glaring weaknesses we need to be wary of? We’ll answer these doubts and more in this detailed scout report of Lyon’s Bruno Guimaraes.

 

  

Career History


Bruno was born in Rio de janeiro in Brazil in 1997 and spent his formative years there playing football from a young age. His first big break came when he started for Brazilian league 2 club Audas at the age of 17. He was promoted to their main team the following year in 2017. By the end of that season he had impressed enough for Brazilian Serie A club Athletico Paranaense to pick him up on loan in May 2017. He impressed the club so much that they bought him mid-season and signed a deal with him till 2021. He became an undisputed starter under coach Tiago Nunes and renewed his contract again at the age of 20. His displays in Brazil’s top league caught the eye of Lyon who secured his services in 2020 for €20 million (and a 20% sell-on clause) on a 4.5-year deal. He has been plying his trade for the club ever since becoming a key starter in 20/21 when they finished 4th in the league. His 21/22 has also got off to a good start and at the age of 24 is now being rumored to be tracked by the top clubs of Europe.

  

Strengths & Weaknesses 

The main reason why Guimaraes topped our shortlist in the first place was thanks to our extra weightage on passing progression stats. The idea was to look for a top playmaker in that bracket and that’s exactly what Guimaraes is. As per the calculations on our data set, (which negates players with low 90s) he boasts a whopping 95 percentile each on Passes into final 3rd & Progressive passes. Only 5 midfielders in Europe (Kroos, Thiago, Modric, Parejo, Gastien) better him on both metrics and none are younger than him. If the next best passer in Europe is the aim, you probably won’t get anyone better than Bruno G. Not only that, his progressive dribbling stats (Distance & number) are bested by only 2 players in Europe in Verratti & Modric showcasing his strength in carrying progression as well. He is probably the best young midfield progressor in the world.

 He’s no slack defensively either and has actually been described as a very combative midfield general. This is backed up by his 83 percentile on tackles won and 84 percentile on successful pressures which are also supported by a decent 53 percentile on pressure success % (as per Fbref). So far, so good.

  

While his strengths seem to be jaw-dropping, Bruno isn’t without weaknesses. Glaringly he is just 10 percentile on Dribbled past. In our data set, this number further dropped to 5 percentile after cutting out low 90s players that Fbref doesn’t. Connecting this to the eye test, Bruno has the tendency to rush into tackles and 50-50s which often leads to him being beaten by his man especially on transitions. This is an issue that coincides with United’s problem on defensive transitions (Explained here). We already have players like Fred who lunge into tackles and get beaten on transitions so ideally the new midfielder shouldn’t. This is probably one box Bruno does not tick but the silver lining is, that at his age, this can be coached out of him. DLPs like him usually mature and become more stand-up tacklers and positionally aware, especially when they move to big teams. Rodri is a good example as he also had this tendency and would often be beaten in transitions in his first year at Man City. But he’s currently overcome that issue and has been one of City’s best players and the ideal Fernandinho replacement. One can trust Bruno to do the same if United move for him soon.

 

Overall, Bruno fits our progression needs to the letter and would solve a lot of build up, progression and creativity needs while being tenacious in his pressing and tackling. Only his weakness of lunging in and getting dribbled past will need to be worked on and prevents him from getting a full score on technical fitment.

 

Technical Fitment: 8/10

 


Playing Style


Now that we know what he’s good at, let’s see how his traits translate on the pitch in terms of role and tactics. Lyon have mostly lined up in a 4-2-3-1 this season with Caqueret & Guimaraes making up the pivot with Auoar ahead of them. In some cases they also shift to a 4-3-3 with the same 3. In both scenarios, Guimaraes plays as the deepest player in the mid 3. The 4-2-3-1 is far more prevalent and suits Guimaraes better as well since he enjoys the dynamism and work rate of a pivot midfielder rather than the static nature of a central DM. He has lined up as LCM often this year due to Caqueret’s preference for RCM, but Bruno is also capable of playing RCM. Guimaraes is the one responsible for the build up, progression from deep & often carries or passes from deep to kickstart the team’s moves. This is exactly what United want in their pivot as well.

 

One aspect of play that is a clear Guimaraes strength is his through ball ability. That special pass threaded through like a needle is always in his locker and he regularly spots attacker runs and plays them in from deep. Here are a few examples:

  

 

 

 



In the above 2 examples, Bruno threads inch-perfect passes between the defence line to put his striker 1-on-1 on goal. But even from large distances he has that ability as seen below:

 

 

  

 Or if its from the outside of his boot as well:

 Bruno’s second biggest strength is his carrying. In a combination of great ball control, Dribbling ability and upper body strength, Guimaraes constantly goes on bursting runs into the heart of midfield without losing the ball until he can create a gap to find a good pass. Here are a few examples.

 

 In the above example Bruno picks the ball from a deep right-sided midfield area and immediately turns to take on his man, beating 2 men successively with a strong drive and taking another out with a quick pass thus progressing through 3 opponents in a flash.

 

 Again Guimaraes picks up from a RCM area and drives, beating 2 men before sliding across a pass to his winger effectively taking out 4-5 opponent players and creating the space for his winger to get a shot from.

With this unique combination of vision, passing ability, dribbling & strength, it almost becomes impossible to stop Bruno from progressing. If you give him space, he picks out runners and strikers easily and if you press him, he can dribble past you to create space, making him the ultimate press-resistant tool for progression.

 Tactically speaking, Bruno’s best role might not be a RCM DLP yet. A pairing beside a left-sided attacking LCM like Fred/Pogba might not be most ideal in his current form. One could even argue letting him roam as the attacking CM in a pivot alongside a sitting DM could work well. Here’s where coaching and what he’s trained into in the next 2-3 years becomes really key. Many DLPs like Carrick/Matic developed positioning and understanding of a deeper progressive role later in their careers and Bruno G has that ability for sure. We’re cutting 3 marks because of this reason. Mostly Bruno can develop into what United need, so overall, it’s still a terrific fit. It’s just not a readymade one that’s all.

  

Tactical Fitment: 7/10

 

Transfers News

Current contract: Jan, 2020 to June 2024 (2.5 years left)
Current wage: £46,000 per week
Market value: £27m
Rumored Transfer fee: €45m (£38m)

Fabrizio Romano recently tweeted that Lyon want at least €45m for Guimaraes which is a pretty reasonable ask for such a talented player who has more than 2 years left on his contract still.

 Arsenal have been the club linked most to the Brazilian but as of January 6th, Guimaraes had this to say: “Arsenal approached my agent, but there was no offer. My aim, and I made it clear to Juninho, is to win a title with Lyon. My aim is to win a title here, but I have never hidden my desire to play in the Premier League.”

This probably rules out a winter move unless a very compelling offer comes in. It also opens up the playing field for other clubs, especially in the PL. Given the high competition for his signature and low United link, we might have to cut some marks, but overall his openness to the Premier League and the rumored transfer fee make this a very attractive and realistic proposition for United.

Transfer Chances: 8/10


This brings our final scores to:

Technical Fitment: 8/10
Tactical Fitment: 7/10
Transfer Chances: 8/10
Overall Devil’s DNA score: 8/10


So there you have it. Guimaraes looked like he was the best option among our shortlist, but further inspection has uncovered that he might not be the 10/10 target that we had hoped for, thanks to his defensive transition weakness, doubts over a deep holding role and transfer competition. Overall, he still offers a huge upgrade on what United have, is probably the best young progressor in Europe and could fix United’s progression issues immediately all at a very modest transfer fee, which still make him a top transfer target.

Whom would you like to see covered next from our shortlist?


Bruno Guimarães – 8/10
Maxime Lopez
Ismaël Bennacer
Florian Grillitsch
Aurélien Tchouaméni
Cheick Doucouré
Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa

 

Why do McFred start for United

 Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s pre-match press conference comments, before the key UCL tie against Villareal explaining the importance of Scott McTominay and Fred to United’s starting XI, have made fans questioning why McFred enjoys so much importance and preference in United’s pivot for a good part of 2.5 years (Most of Ole’s tenure). Especially coming off the back of a few unimpressive performances in September, the United manager’s selections and tactics have been questioned in recent weeks. But like most things in football, the answer isn’t black and white. United definitely have issues under Ole which are clearly linked to a lack of structures and processes, which gives rise to a lot of variation and extremities – and within this variation Fred and Scott are Ole’s go-to midfield men thanks to their ability to cope.

 

United’s major issue under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

 It’s hard to pinpoint a singular issue but there is one overarching gap/criticism of Ole’s reign which, despite his amazing success in 2.5 years, prevents United from becoming elite. The issue under Ole is that the players aren’t being helped by the system/tactic. If they perform/cope, it’s not really because of the system, but despite it. United are not laying out clear patterns & processes to make things easier for the players during the game. For example, we have had build up issues for a while. Shaw being able to progress even after the build up structure being bad is him performing despite the system. He’s just that good dribbling and passing wise. It doesn’t change the fact that he doesn’t get the required support. A player might play out of his skin & manage on a day or a new signing might come in & do better but it doesn’t change the fact that the existing system doesn’t facilitate. 

  A tactic has to leverage its players strengths & mitigate its player weaknesses. United aren’t doing that as well as they can under Ole. The summer window created an imbalance which has only opened us up more to the system inconsistency & inefficiency we always had. We now have more attacking players who have high ball-affinity & are left leaning & no holding progressive CM profile except Matic. But transfers only solve so much. We need more emphasized structures that put less pressure on the players. These patterns are what players fall back on when things don’t work out. This reduces the burden on individuals. The absence of these forces them to take matters into their own hands – an exaggeration of which especially in attack is what fans refer to as ‘individual brilliance.’

  That’s not always a bad thing. Giving players freedom & promoting flair is good, but there’s a balance. The current United side, thanks to the composition of its current personnel, is on the wrong side of that balance. Against Aston Villa last week, the burden on individuals was clear. The drastic change this year could be down to the immense attacking talent at Ole’s display. The temptation to go direct or rely on the world-class qualities of the attackers (Eg. Bruno’s final ball + Ronaldo’s finishing) seems to be bypassing logical system rules.

 

The value of Scott McTominay and Fred

  Where do McFred come in all of this? In a system as dynamic as this, which lacks structures and protection for its players, the players who have the best ability to cope become the natural picks. This is where Scott and Fred shine. Their physical and mental attributes alone form a huge reason for their preference. Both players regularly top the running charts for United, have good coverage of area, are naturally fit players who tirelessly do their jobs till full time and are usually available for selection 90% of the season. These aspects were confirmed by Ole in his recent presser before the Villareal UCL tie:

 

 “The stats for them two [McTominay & Fred] together, we’ve had many good results. The energy and desire, I really like to have the two of them. I can trust them to give us what they’ve got. Fans will always have opinions, it’s easy to say who should be playing.”

 

 The intensity and coverage that Ole needs in the chaotic environment that is United’s midfield can only be provided by Fred and Scott. Ole also refers to some ‘stats’ here. Let’s dive into that. There are some objective numbers backing McFred as well.

  

  As you can see in the above viz, last season Fred won the ball back most for United. His ball winning stats are all in the top 10 percentile in Europe and he is by far United’s most important tool for winning the ball back so that we can play our game. When he’s not on the pitch, United sorely lack a player who can win the ball back quickly and efficiently.

 In 21/22 so far, Fred’s per 90 defensive actions ranking (among players >2.5 90s played) reads:

3.6 Tackles Attempted: 1st
2.8 Tackles Won: 1st
27.1 Pressures: 1st
6.6 Successful pressures: 1st
12.1 Recoveries: 1st

 Paints a pretty clear picture, doesn’t it? Fred is immense for United off the ball.

 Let’s also list down Scott’s contributions in the same way:

2.1 Tackles Attempted: 2nd
1.1 Tackles Won: 3rd
13.9 Pressures: 4th
2.9 Successful pressures: 8th
6.1 Recoveries: 11th

While not as intense or efficient as Fred, Scott’s value in the defensive department is clear.

So we know now Ole likes the intensity, consistency & mentality of the duo and the ‘stats’ he’s referring to back up their ball-winning ability on the pitch as well. The next question on your mind might be – But why do we need 2 ball-winners in midfield anyway? Why can’t we have 1 or 2 playmakers in the pivot instead?

 

The answer to this is straightforward – United have too many creators and scorers on the pitch in their 4-2-3-1. Bruno who plays CAM is one of Europe’s elite creators and for all practical purposes a key pass machine. He ensures high chance creation and final 3rd balls at the cost of losing the ball in possession thanks to ambitious passes and shots. Ahead of him, United have a star-studded cast of Ronaldo, Greenwood and Pogba and in rotation (for now) Cavani, Sancho and Rashford. Pogba guarantees more ball-playing talent and already leads the league for assists. Ronaldo and Greenwood are starting often thanks to their ability to finish the chances Pogba and Bruno create. The front 4 is packed with creativity and scoring to the limit. Some might say it’s beyond the limit and is hurting retention and safety since all 4 lose the ball a lot thanks to ambitious shooting and passing. 

 

 With this kind of setup and a lot of ball losses to deal with, the pivot essentially becomes a ball-recovery engine for the team. With the fullbacks often caught ahead on the flanks, the front 4 as attacking as they are and the CB pairing focussing on winning their duels to ensure they aren’t bypassed by opponent attackers, the pivot 2 are under unreal pressure to cover a lot of area in midfield, win the ball back and recycle it efficiently to the front 4 again. This creates a high ball-winning pressure which can only be satisfied by Fred and Scott. The below viz confirms the contributions in defending and progression from the midfield 3 options:

 

There is a reason Bruno-Fred-Scott is the preferred mid 3. They have the right balance of progression and ball-winning Ole wants. Matic’s lack of agility, coverage and defensive intensity mean that he can’t cope while VDB and Mata don’t offer as much progression or defending. The reason why Pogba doesn’t make the pivot is also visible here. Defensively he can’t cope, which Ole has learnt through a few experiments. But given Pogba’s quality, Ole has now turned to use him as a winger. McFred becomes the default pivot. All of this is also indicative of the lack of good options in midfield which is a good argument. We felt United needed a holding playmaker CM this summer and are badly ill-equipped without one (Read our CM shortlist here). But let’s keep that aside for now and work with what we have.  

Even with the defensive traits of McFred, the midfield is barely being dominated by them which is one of the main reasons for United’s recent form. Until last year, McFred somehow coped with these system gaps, but this year with the addition of Ronaldo and the higher attacking (read possession losing) quotient of the front 4, the pressure on the pivot and CB pairing in transitions is even more intense leading to some very open games (Like West Ham and Aston Villa) where possession retention and circulation were tough and a lot of time and energy of the squad was spent in winning the ball back and competing in 50-50s.

  

What is the way forward?

 So far, we have deduced the following: 

  • United’s setup lacks structure and hard-coded processes
  • In such a volatile setup, with 4 attackers to carry, the pivot needs to be a consistent ball-winning machine
  • Fred & Scott are the best ball-winners and preferred pivot choice as a result
  • Even this might not be ideal and seems like too much to manage in 21/22

 

We circle back to the lack of processes to ponder over solutions.  As mentioned above, a tactic should mitigate player weaknesses but United don’t provide any such cover for the pivot or backline. For example, Fred’s weaknesses are his poor first touch and affinity to lunge forward instead of holding position. These haven’t been covered for. Either due to a lack of coaching or players not being receptive to coaching, both continue to be an issue in Fred’s game. His excellent ball-winning and underrated progression are masked by those rare but critical moments when he loses the ball under pressure in a deep area or loses the 50-50 in a transition. A system that allows him more time on the ball or more protection in transitions would be beneficial.

 Which then brings us to another question – Why can’t the system change enough to facilitate Pogba or Matic in the pivot? For all theoretical purposes, it can. One can argue that their progression traits (as shown in the viz above) are valuable enough to justify playing them in midfield. But they then require a system that covers for their defensive weaknesses. If the need to run around intensely to win the ball is reduced, Matic and Pogba can start – and this is clear since Ole uses them against low blocks (like Newcastle recently) to good effect where that need is minimal. But the lack of set patterns and processes means covering for deficiencies isn’t easy. In a nutshell, the message from Ole and his coaching team seems to be – ‘We can’t cover for your weaknesses, so be as consistent and well-rounded as possible.’  This leads to him picking/wanting players who can do most things without having any glaring weaknesses in their game. Which isn’t a sustainable approach to building a tactic or team.

 The same effect was seen with the CB pairing. United leave themselves open on transitions so often, that the CBs face a lot more duels than they should. The expectation then becomes – winning duels consistently and efficiently. Varane to Lindelof was an upgrade with the aim of increasing that duel winning rate (which Lindelof couldn’t maximize due to being average in aerial duels). But the fact that the CB pair face a lot of duels in transition hasn’t changed. No matter how good Varane and Maguire are (and they are pretty good as we explain here) , exposing them repeatedly will cause a few to get through and those few goals are usually the difference between trophies and losses. 

 

 It’s the same for the pivot. No matter how good Fred and Scott are at ball-winning, a system that forces them into so many defensive actions is probably not a title-winning one anyway. In short, McFred are the best at what they do and deserve to start for that reason, but for United to win titles, no midfielder should probably be doing what they do in the first place. It’s not a complaint against them, it’s a complaint against the tactic under Ole. And upgrading every position (like Varane for Lindelof or Scott for a new CM) can only take you so far at the end of the day. If the root issues aren’t tackled, no player can perform to his best. 

 A good example is Chelsea under Tuchel. They are defensively solid without the need to get into so many duels. Tuchel has covered for his player’s weaknesses and given them a system to fall back on, which limits the situations they struggle in considerably. The best example is Jorginho, who was always criticized for not being defensively strong. But, like Matic, his progression and playmaking was always exceptional. In a system where he isn’t forced into defensive actions regularly and has time on the ball to do what he does best, he is a gem. And that’s what Tuchel has provided him – to the point of success of Ballon Dor shouts.

 In summary, Ole is justified in starting McFred. His comments on their intensity and stats are right. They are the best fit for the system United currently play with. But the larger question is whether this is the path for the future – whether repeating this process or even slightly improving on it can get United to really control transitions, dominate midfield, create efficiently, win consistently and lift the trophies the Old Trafford faithfuls have been dreaming of. That’s a question Ole has to think much harder about than his recent presser responses. 

 

 

 

 

Tactical Analysis: Thomas Tuchel

 

There are some very good reasons why Thomas Tuchel keeps getting high-profile club jobs without having to wait, and knowing German is not one of them! We take a look at the tactician’s early history and the principles that shape his philosophy that make him one of the most exciting coaches in world football today.

 

Early Days

 

A series of knee injuries halted Tuchel’s budding career as a defender in his mid 20s. He played 68 times before being forced to hang up his boots for good due to a serious knee injury at the age of 24 in 1998. He then funded a business administration course by bartending before attempting another shot at a career by requesting his mentor Ralf Rangnick, head coach of Stuttgart at the time, to allow him a trial. After 9 moths of training with the Stuttgart reserves Tuchel came to the painful realisation that his playing days were surely over. A devastated Tuchel was suggested by his mentor to get into coaching. At a time devoid of textbooks, Tuchel learnt from the notes of Rangnick & Helmut Groß. He followed the personality building principles of Hermann Badstuber, father of former Bayern defender, Holger Badstuber, which led Tuchel to place great emphasis on making personalities. Acts like being on time, proper greetings with handshakes & making eye contact while talking would later become part of Tuchel’s own expectations as a manager. 

 

 

Tuchel started by shadowing the academy coaches before taking over the U14 team in 2000. He would then swiftly rise up the ranks as U14, U17 & U19 manager while impressing at each stage. His U19 league win with Stuttgart in 2005 prompted a switch to Mainz U19 who were on the rise at the time thanks to a club-defining spell under Jurgen Klopp. In June 2008, at a pre-season training camp in Austria, in a bid to motivate his players, Tuchel and his team underwent an intense trek and buried a club badge at the top of a mountain with the promise that the team would come back and remove it only if they reached the U19 Cup finals. In June 2009, the team reached the finals to face Borussia Dortmund. Tuchel did not want to disturb the players and went and brought back the badge before the final along with his assistant. He showed the video of their climb and them digging out the badge moments before the final in the dressing room to his players. An inspired Mainz U19 went on to win the final 2-1.

 

 

 

FSV Mainz 05 (2009-2014)

 

Being rewarded with a glamorous 7 years from 2001 to 2008 thanks to the inspired appointment of Jurgen Klopp, Mainz decided to follow up the club’s greatest era with another inspired appointment. They promoted the 35-year-old Thomas Tuchel to lead the senior team. Shaking off constant comparisons with Klopp, Tuchel delivered a strong 9th place finish in his first season before improving on it further with a club-first Europa qualification berth a season later. Key to their success was young Andre Schurrle whom Tuchel worked with in the U19s. Lewis Holtby, who joined on loan from Schalke, and Ádám Szalai, who made his move from Real Madrid Castilla permanent, formed a good trio along with Schürrle and the three were the Mainz boyband. Tuchel left Mainz in 2015 averaging higher than Klopp’s points per game (1.41 compared to 1.13 for Klopp), another Europa league finish and club-high 7th position. 

 

 

 Borussia Dortmund (2015-2017)

 

That followed a year-long break, during which Tuchel was still educating himself, understanding the importance of stats from Brentford owner Matthew Benham and then learning from Professor Wolfgang Schöllhorn, a famed sports scientist who indirectly influenced Guardiola. Tuchel’s next job was as challenging as his last – improving another impressive Klopp team – Borussia Dortmund. While Tuchel’s success is well-known, his methods aren’t. He employed a strict diet plan at Dortmund which improved the fitness of key players, Hummels & Gundogan. Even the official team bus driver was on a diet plan & lost 8 kgs! In his first season, they lost just four games all season while the attacking triumvirate of Marco Reus, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored an incredible 85 goals between them in all competitions. A year later Tuchel would win his first trophy, the DFB Pokal. He departed Dortmund again with better a points per game average than Klopp and in fact the highest points-per-game record of any Dortmund manager in history. In those 2 years, Dortmund were undefeated at home and Tuchel’s win % was a brilliant 62.7%.

 

  

 

 

 

Paris Saint-Germain (2018-2020)

 

If his Mainz and Dortmund spells were impressive, his time at Paris Saint-Germain was even better. In 2018-19, Thomas Tuchel’s PSG side set the record for most wins to start a top-five European league season – 14 and then went on to score in all 38 games of the league campaign – a first-time feat. If you thought the attack was fantastic, the defending wasn’t any less. PSG conceded a record low 6 goals throughout the 2019/20 Champions League campaign – a run which saw them reach the finals. Tuchel had to fight through waves of squad injury issues and display immense man management to get the best out of the previously underwhelming PSG stars. Eventually a disagreement with the board prompted him to leave the club, a trend observed during his departure from Dortmund as well.

 

It’s no surprise that a few weeks later he already finds himself in the coaching tracksuit of London side, Chelsea, presiding over them a day after Frank Lampard was sacked. Chelsea’s announcement of the appointment was followed with a training clip of his first session, where the German suited up quickly in a no-nonsense fashion before rushing to the training ground to take over his troops. It summed everything about Tuchel really – an efficient, hard-working winner who wastes no time doing what he does best. With 7 trophies and a Champions League runners-up medal under his belt and a stellar record of greatly improving every side he has ever managed, Tuchel is among the fastest-rising managers in the world. The challenging Chelsea job might just be the best opportunity for him to prove those who still doubt him wrong.

 

 

(All Image Credits: Getty Images)

 

 

 

 

 

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)