Something Is Wrong With Manchester United. Is It Paul Pogba?

Manchester United have been running a high-wire act all season without any major falls. Their goalkeeper David De Gea is the only keeper from a top six team in the top six in saves. The United defense is consistently conceding good chances, more than any of the other top sides in the Premier League. Most weeks it seems like De Gea is up to the task. But in the recent weeks the strain has started to show. United were pressed off the pitch by Tottenham and two matches later lost away to Newcastle. These two losses have not yet cost Manchester United their second place position, but between the weak underlying statistics and a couple bad results, the drop seems to be beckoning.

This week, United will face Sevilla in the first round of the Champions League knockouts. They are favored to get through the tie, but not by an overwhelming margin. Their statistical profile is too shoddy, and their recent results back it up. So the questions facing Manchester United are, what has gone wrong with this team’s defending, and how can it be fixed?

Based on his squad management, it appears that manager Jose Mourinho has an incendiary theory of the case. He seems to think the problem is £90m midfield superstar Paul Pogba. In both the losses to Spurs and Newcastle, Mourinho took Pogba off the pitch after about an hour. And in the victory over Huddersfield sandwiched between those two defeats, Pogba did not even make the starting eleven.

The theory appears to be as follows. Pogba lacks the positional discipline to play in a two-man central midfield, and the club’s defensive issues can be tracked to Pogba not carrying his weight preventing attacks through the center.

It is certainly true that United has struggled to defend against opposition passing through the center of the pitch. In the Spurs match, Christian Eriksen completed five dangerous passes into the box from spaces where you would expect a central midfielder to have pressured him. And Newcastle had far too many opportunities to break through midfield driven by Jonjo Shelvey’s passing.

But identifying a problem is not the same as pinning the blame on Pogba and the two-man midfield. Last season Manchester United played over 1500 minutes in a 4231 and conceded only about 0.85 expected goals per 90 minutes in that formation. This season United are averaging well over 1.0 xG conceded in both the 433 and the 4231. What has gone wrong defensively cannot be limited to just one formation—United have struggled no matter how they have lined up. And as recently as last season, United were effective defensively even with Pogba playing in a midfield two.

The data suggests a more holistic cause rather than a single player problem. Since last season, star center-back Eric Bailly has been injured. Ander Herrera has played less frequently after taking a key role in midfield last year. 32-year-old fullbacks Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young have had to carry a heavier workload. With key players at several positions aging or unavailable, it is reasonable to expect an across-the-board decline as well.
If the blame for United’s poor defense cannot be laid at the feet of one player, then the solution probably must be implemented at the team level. United probably need to either add another defensive midfielder to the squad and remove an attacker, or to switch their tactics to keep the fullbacks in reserve. Either solution would weaken the attack.

However, this is where the recent acquisition of Alexis Sanchez might be most useful. While Sanchez has produced similar levels of shot involvement to United’s wingers Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard, his ball progression numbers are far better. Sanchez has averaged about 4.5 progressive passes and runs per 90 minutes, good for seventh in the Premier League, behind Pogba and just ahead of Eriksen. Because Sanchez can provide ball progression as well as goals, United may be able to solidify their defense without hamstringing the attack. A safer lineup with heavier attacking demands on Pogba and Sanchez may be the best way forward for the Red Devils.

The Pressing Problem at the Heart of Spurs-Liverpool

This season, Anfield has been a fortress. Liverpool have yet to lose at home, and of their five draws, only the 1-1 against Chelsea reflected an even expected goals scoreline. The Reds have created ten non-penalty clear scoring chances in those draws and conceded only three. The typical home Liverpool performance has been dominant, even when the result occasionally has not been the win that performance deserved.

Liverpool will be looking to continue this run at home this weekend to Tottenham. But Spurs have something to build on too. Tottenham just beat Manchester United handily, and the last time they took on Liverpool, it ended in a 4-1 victory. Spurs created about 3.3 expected goals in that victory, the largest total that the Reds have conceded all season. In fact, the only other time Liverpool conceded more than two expected goals was against Manchester City, in a match that turned on an early Sadio Mane red card.

So which trend will be broken? This depends on one key dynamic. Can Liverpool push Tottenham back? The Reds’ home dominance has been driven by a relentless press and forward motion. They have successfully moved the ball forward in open play into the opposition penalty area 222 times in home matches, the most in the league. With waves of pressure to win the ball back and attackers pushing forward, Liverpool pin the opposition back and leave them no space to counter.

But at Wembley earlier this season, it was precisely this dynamic that Spurs thwarted. Liverpool managed only five open play attacking moves into Tottenham’s penalty area. Spurs successfully played quickly around the press by involving unexpected players into the play and looking to spring Harry Kane free against the Liverpool center backs.

One might expect to see Christian Eriksen’s attacking map featuring several key long passes forward, but right back Kieran Trippier was if anything more effective. His quick forward ball to Kane broke Liverpool’s press for Spurs’ first goal.

This weekend, Liverpool must contain Spurs’ quick-hitting attack and re-establish their suffocating pressure. The Reds will have two key advantages to press to make this happen. The first is Virgil Van Dijk. The new center back will likely replace Dejan Lovren in the lineup, and it was Lovren that Spurs targeted so effectively in their passes forward to Kane. If Tottenham seek to rush the ball forward, it might be possible to thwart this movement simply with better defensive play in the back line.

The second advantage is also a matter of personnel. Liverpool tried against Spurs to play a bruising midfield of Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Emre Can. These stronger but slower midfielders found themselves pushed back and unable to challenge Spurs quickly. Henderson and Milner ended up doing more defending in their own half than pushing forward to win the ball and dominate play.

It is unlikely that Jurgen Klopp will make a similar selection on Sunday. In fact, Klopp started his three big midfielders against Huddersfield in midweek. Spurs should expect to see a faster and more dynamic midfield, likely featuring one or both of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Georginio Wijnaldum. This personnel should be more suited to closing down Spurs’ quick attacks and springing their own moves off the counterpress to pin Tottenham back. Liverpool’s press has been dominant at home, and the right personnel should enable the Reds to keep this run going.

Does the Swansea Loss Show Liverpool Will Struggle to Replace Coutinho?

Clubs do not usually sell their top players in January without a very good reason. Liverpool, locked in a tight top four race and looking forward to a relatively easy Champions League knockout tie against Porto, would seem if anything to have reason not to sell. But sell they did, sending Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona for an incredible 140 million. The reason for the sale, as reported, were less about any football reason that Coutinho was not needed, but rather that the Brazilian attacker had gone on strike and demanded the move. Liverpool acquiesced. The question for the Reds now is how to adjust to the loss of Coutinho and keep their excellent season moving along.

Liverpool’s last two matches show that the Coutinho question is highly contextual. On the one hand, Liverpool beat Manchester City without Coutinho. So this team is still capable of beating just about anyone in the world. But then the Reds went and lost to Swansea City. It was not a bad performance, and Liverpool had several chances to win the game, but the ball progression maps of their midfielders show that they struggled to get penetration into the penalty area for most of the match.

And it is precisely that sort of ball progression that is Coutinho’s specialty. Last season Coutinho averaged about six progressive passes or runs per 90 minutes—the statistic is defined as a pass or run that progresses the ball over 10 yards past its furthest point forward in the move, or moves the ball into the 18-yard box. The only players with better numbers were Chelsea’s Cesc Fabregas and City’s David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne. Elite creators like Mesut Ozil and Eden Hazard fell short of Coutinho, with just about five progressive passes or runs per match. This season Coutinho has improved, leading the league in progressive passes and runs with about 7.5 per 90 minutes. De Bruyne and Silva trail him with around 7 per 90.

What Coutinho offers, then, is the sort of elite ball progression that can break down a packed, organized defense. While Oxlade-Chamberlain and Adam Lallana both have put up reasonably good passing numbers, neither rates among the best of the best. Unless Liverpool make a big splash on the January market, they will most likely need to do without the peculiar skills that Countinho provides, and Jurgen Klopp will need to devise a different Plan B for breaking down packed defenses.

The Manchester City victory, however, militates against any rushed purchases or January overpayments. Given room to work in the open field by a high-pressing City side, Liverpool’s forwards ran rampant. They could break at pace into the final third or the penalty area because there was room to work. Where Liverpool may feel the loss of Coutinho is in matches like Monday’s, where an opponent sets out to stifle their attack and refuses to take the sort of attacking risks that could lead to dangerous attacks but could also disrupt their defensive shape. It may be only for a subset of the club’s matches that Coutinho’s absence is truly felt, and for those matches other options may be available.

Liverpool’s most creative attacker on Monday was new center back Virgil Van Dijk, who assisted two of the Reds’ three best scoring chances.

While Van Dijk surely cannot replicate this performance weekly, he does point to a possible solution for Liverpool short of a new purchase. In matches where the opposition packs in deep, unexpected players can join the attack. Liverpool will need more complex plans or scripted moves to bring these additional attackers into play, but for the precise matches where Coutinho is needed, one can imagine new tactical solutions building on the skills of Liverpool’s defenders. The loss of Coutinho then is a problem, but it looks like a limited and soluble one.

Do Manchester United’s Derby Tactics Offer a Path To Slowing Down the City Juggernaut?

Manchester City look like runaway title winners. They won the Manchester Derby over their likeliest title rival. That victory extended their first division record win streak. Then by defeating Swansea City 4-0, Pep Guardiola’s side expanded their goal difference to plus-41, well over two goals per match better than their league opponents. That pace would break the Premier League goal difference record by over 20 goals.

At this point, the question is not whether Manchester City will fall back into a title race but whether they’ll fall back to earth at all. This weekend it will be Tottenham Hotspur looking to test City. While the record numbers listed above suggest Spurs will be severe underdogs, the last two matches offered a few hints of the best ways to approach City. In particular, Manchester United managed to slow down City’s usually overwhelming forward progress in attack, and were done in instead by a pair of set play goals.

Against United, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne turned their weakest combined ball progression numbers of the season. Neither prised open the United defense as easily as both regularly have against other opponents.

Their combined per 90 ball progression rating of 9.5 marked the only time this season the two have combined for under a 15 rating. This season De Bruyne and Silva have both averaged over 6.5 progressive passes and runs per 90, defined as passes or runs which progress the ball 10-15 yards beyond its further point of progress in the move in the attacking half. Among players with over 1000 minutes played, the City midfield pair are first and second in the league. But against United, Silva and De Bruyne managed to complete only six such passes, half their normal combined rate.

Although United did not come away with the points, or the better chances, Jose Mourinho successfully stymied the twin engines of City’s attack. Nemanja Matic, Ander Herrera and Jesse Lingard clogged the center and pressured Silva and De Bruyne, limiting the amount of open play penetration the City could achieve. The combination of defensive pressure on the ball and numbers behind it is not easy to achieve, but it was effective here.

For Tottenham this suggests one possible way forward. Toby Alderweireld’s Injury and Davinson Sanchez’s suspension have forced Spurs to play a back four after earlier success in a back three. They will need to use their midfield to prevent De Bruyne and Silva from picking passes into the spaces between the four deepest defenders. Tottenham this season have shown occasional willingness to concede space, drop midfielders into a deeper block and play on the counter—primarily in the Champions League against Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund. Such an approach against City would be to invite disaster, but it is possible Spurs could manage to find the balance that United did. It would depend on the pressing of Mousa Dembele and likely require Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli to be deployed in more defensive roles, so the team could pressure Silva and De Bruyne without leaving too much space behind for them to pass into.

Of course, when Manchester City found midfield inhospitable during the Derby, they still created a pair of goals from set pieces. The problem with facing a great team is they might beat you anyway even if you win a few tactical battles.

Still, the success of United at slowing down City’s open play attack by stifling De Bruyne and Silva suggests this can be accomplished. Both have already started two matches this week and De Bruyne’s workload—only one missed start between the Premier and Champions Leagues—is approaching the inhumane. If Tottenham are to have a chance in this match, it most likely begins with a defensive, low-block structure and the application of tactics reminiscent of Jose Mourinho.

Manchester Derby Preview

For there to be a title race in the Premier League this year, Manchester United will probably need a win in this weekend’s Manchester Derby. United sit already eight points behind Manchester City and are huge underdogs for the title. That underdog status is reinforced by a quick look at the underlying numbers. City have the league’s best expected goals difference at plus-27, while United’s plus-8 reflects a season in which results have outstripped the underlying play. It appears several things must go right if the Red Devils if they are to get the win.

1) More Spectacular Goalkeeping

In United’s 3-1 win over Arsenal at the weekend, it was goalkeeper David De Gea and his incredible 14 saves that were most responsible for preserving the result. In general, this has been the story of United’s season. Jose Mourinho sides are expected to exert defensive control, and United’s nine goals conceded suggest he has the defense clicking, but the indicators do not all line up. The Red Devils’ 182 shots conceded are by a good margin the most of the any of the big six teams and more than twice as many as Man City. The performance rankings from the Arsenal match tell a familiar story—defenders Chris Smalling, Victor Lindelof, and Marcos Rojo produced almost no defensive value, and it was the work of De Gea that prevented a flurry of Arsenal goals.

2) New Sources of Ball Progression

Paul Pogba has been United’s best progressive passer from midfield on the season. His red card against Arsenal means United will need to find another solution. Nemanja Matic and Marouane Fellaini can add defensive strength to midfield, and Fellaini is dangerous in the penalty area, but over the season on a per-minute basis, Pogba has produced more attacking value than Matic and Fellaini combined.

While United has no like-for-like replacement for their record signing, the tactical battle could provide Mourinho with a solution. Manchester City are unlikely to concede space or possession, meaning that the key ball progression United will be looking for should come on the counter rather than from buildup. It may be possible against City to replace Pogba’s ball progression without adding a passing midfielder. Both Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial have provided exceptional value with their passing in recent weeks, and with City streaming numbers forward, the options should exist for a quick out ball to an attacker like Lingard or Martial.

3) Maybe Manchester City Get Tired

There is no doubt that Pep Guardiola will have his side pushing forward in attack. In the last few matches, however, this attack has looked somewhat more manageable than usual. It took a last-minute winner from Raheem Sterling to sink Southampton, and City were held to just 0.1 expected goals in the first half against West Ham. Guardiola has done little to rotate his key attackers this season, with Kevin De Bruyne starting all but one match between Premier League and Champions League, and David Silva missing the XI only four times. So far this lack of rotation has not cost City any important points. United, counting on more exceptional goalkeeping and a plan b attacking strategy, will certainly need some good fortune. If City come out of the gate looking tired from these early season exertions, it would give United the opportunity they need.

Aaron Ramsey Appreciation Society, Called to Order

In many ways, Arsenal’s 2017-18 season seems to be following the pattern the Gunners set last year. They fell short of 4th place by one point, and through 15 matches this year they are in the same position, a single point off Liverpool once again. But the underlying numbers suggest a different story. Arsenal’s plus-20 expected goals difference last season was clearly the weakest in the Premier League. This season Arsenal has already produced three-quarters of their xGD from a full season last year—their expected goals difference of plus-15 is behind only Manchester City’s stratospheric plus-27.

This Arsenal team, then, has maintained its level in the table while significantly improving its underlying statistics. What appears to be a team holding steady may really be a club striding forward.

The increasingly effective Arsenal back three system has been the secret to the club’s steady improvement. The linchpin of the system is Aaron Ramsey. While recent matches have seen big performances from forwards Alexandre Lacazette and Alexis Sanchez, it is Ramsey’s all-around midfield play that has enabled Arsenal to consolidate and move forward from last season. Arsenal have played nearly the whole season with three center backs. This has helped the Gunners’ defense in obvious ways, as a midfield that lacks a clear ball-winner can be covered by the extra man at the back. But to make the attack work after dropping numbers up front requires a player who can offer shot production from an unusual position. For Arsenal, that player in Ramsey.

The Welsh midfielder’s 36 shot attempts and 4.8 expected goals are the most of any central midfielder in the league, and his 3.5 expected assists trail only David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne and Cesc Fabregas. With his late runs into the box, Ramsey can destabilize a defense and create quality scoring chances for himself or his teammates, as he did with his one-touch assist to Lacazette for Arsenal’s goal against Manchester United last week.

What makes Ramsey’s shot production stand out, of course, is that he lines up in central midfield. And this is not a nominal position. Over the last four matches, which have produced three victories and one hard-luck defeat, Ramsey has been one of Arsenal’s most consistent contributors across every dimension. His Twelve Football dashboard shows nearly 5000 pts produced up and down the pitch. Ramsey has contributed tackles in the defensive zone, pressing in midfield, progressive passing around the box and those quality shot attempts as well.

Arsenal’s new back three system both depends on Ramsey and seems to get the best out of him. The three-man attack would be too easy to mark if they did not have a midfielder making runs into the box to unsettle the defenders and create space for Lacazette, Sanchez and Ozil. With those three forwards leading the press, he has time to track back into position or join them in the high press, and with three center backs behind, there is coverage if Ramsey is caught up field.

It is hard to see Arsenal’s system working without the peculiar talents of Aaron Ramsey. His manager has built a system which maximizes his talent and enables a little extra defensive cover for the whole team. So long as Ramsey stays healthy, it is likely this Arsenal team can maintain its early season success and make another run at the top four.