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.

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Can Manchester City be Stopped?

Following their win in the derby, Manchester City are now unbeaten in 16 matches and on the way to changing the record books in terms of goals and points amassed during a Premier League season. If there was one team, one manager that had the know how on how to defeat a Guardiola team it was Jose Mourinho and his defensively disciplined Manchester United.

The script before the derby was all but known, City would dominate possession trying to tire and stretch their opposition, while United would defend with 11 men, be compact and try to hit them on fast breaks. This counter-plan from Mourinho had worked in the past; He had done it previously in his time at both Inter Milan, and Real Madrid respectively.

When pressed, City’s defense can be wobbly under pressure. This was evident when United pressed forward late on in the first half after going behind in the 43rd minute. Within 3 minutes of conceding from a set piece, United had created 2 opportunities. First, Martial created an opportunity for himself after dribbling from the half way line and taking on the entire City defence, only to produce a tame shot that was easily collected by Ederson. And then secondly, a hopeful long ball from Rojo into a dangerous area was not dealt with by either Otamendi or Kompany and popped up nicely for Rashford to finish.

In attack, City’s wing backs did not push up the field as they have done this season. They were marked by the pacey Rashford and Martial and had to be ready to defend United’s counter-Attacks. The affect can be seen in Kyle Walker who has amassed 7.5 attack points-per-minute so far this season, yet only contributed 4.5 attack points per minute versus United. Below we can see Walker’s role in City’s other matches this season compared to Sunday’s match.

City’s attacking play was, relatively, subdued as Mourinho sent Herrera and Matic out to man-mark the creative duo of De Bruyne and David Silva. And it worked somewhat as City found it difficult to break down United’s defence with their usual ease. Their two goals were scored from set pieces, they had previously only scored from 5 this season. Silva has contributed in 12.3 points-per-minute in attack this season, but in the derby his output in attack was only worth 2.6 points-per-minute. The comparison can be seen below.

Pep also took a few pages out of of Mourinho’s playbook. As he has often done this season, in the 60th minute he substituted his striker Gabriel Jesus. Yet, extremely surprisingly he was not replaced by Aguero but rather by Eliaquim Mangala as City played the last 30 minutes of the derby without a forward. Furthermore in order to run down the clock, in the last 10 minutes of the game Guardiola’s players took the ball into United’s corner, much to the frustration of the United players and the Old Trafford faithful.

Pep’s willingness to compromise, these chances created by United and the failure of the team to convert their dominance in possession into goals are all evidence that this City team is not invincible. Pep knows this and has developed as a manager to combat this. His foundations are the same, attack as a team and defend by controlling possession and not giving the opposition time on the ball. Yet, he has evolved his thinking and his tactics to fit the intense never-give-in style of the Premier League. We are seeing a new dimension to his footballing philosophy.

City’s tactics show that Guardiola have a plan B, which will make them a force to be reckoned with both domestically and in Europe. United had their few chances in the match, and with more efficiency, quicker transitions from defence to attacks, and greater lethality in front of goal they could have gotten more out of the match. Up next for them is a trip to Wales and Swansea. The Swans will be the next team that tells themselves that even City, just like any other team, have their weaknesses.

Originally appeared on Nordic Bet blog.

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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.

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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.

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Alexis Sanchez move to Manchester United

Alexis Sanchez had just been confirmed as the stellar new winter signing for Manchester United. We at Twelve are curious to know how the introduction of Alexis will impact Mourinho’s side. It is certain that Alexis will bring a greater attacking threat, but what can a Manchester United fans expect to see from him?

Alexis is a dynamic player that can occupy any attacking position across the frontline. Having played on right during his time at Barcelona, he is also comfortable on the left where he often played during his time at Arsenal. Alexis can even play as a play-maker or as a false nine as he had done at times in the national level and Udinese. It is difficult then to predict where his place will be in Mourinho’s side.

We can start by comparing Alexis’ performance this season with the rest of Manchester United’s squad. Using Twelve’s system, Alexis places first in overall points per minutes played throughout the season. Not surprisingly, his biggest contribution is his ability to generate offensive opportunities with passes and dribbles (green) while a fair share of his total contributions also comes from shots and goals (blue). Considering Mourinho’s defensive philosophy, Alexis will most likely be expected to increase defensive (red) and press (yellow) contributions to match those of Rashford and Martial. This should be no problem; the Chilean has always been highlighted for his work-rate and pressing abilities.

A new Martial to the team: If we focus a more detailed view of Alexis’s offensive display so far in the season, we can see that his best attacking contributions happen just inside and outside the penalty box. Alexis has the pace to get the ball in the middle of the pitch, carry it forward and find the space to release his teammates into. He also has the agility to receive the ball inside the opposition’s box, keep possession and work a shooting opportunity. When comparing offensive actions, we can’t help but see similarities in the between Alexis and Martial.

Attacking symmetry: We might expect that Mourinho will first try to place Sanchez on the right, a position that Mata currently occupies, to mirror Matial’s movement. When in control of the ball, Mata usually cuts inside and moves into a more creative central role. This is seen by the fact that Mata’s best attacking contributions only come from outside the penalty box. Alexis will offer Manchester United a direct route to the opposition’s penalty box taking advantage of the run of Antonio Valencia from behind. This reminds us of his time at Udinese and Barcelona.

Numbers will increase: Alexis has lacked efficiency in front of goal this season, having only scored 7 goals from 46 shots compared to last season where he converted in 24 occasions from 86 shots. A role from the left has made him predictable at times by always choosing to cut inside with his right foot. If Mourinho favours the option of playing him on the right it might help Alexis be more involved in the finishing.

Increased discipline from Alexis: From the later part of 16/17 season until now, Sanchez has had the tendency to drop deep in search of involvement in the play. Sometimes forced by discouraging results at Arsenal, Sanchez seeks to fill the void that allows his team to move the ball up the pitch. This has been the cause of a lot of unforced errors and lost possessions (marked by “x” in the diagram below). Often lost possession by Alexis has left Arsenal’s defence badly shaped and vulnerable as the team transitions into attack.

Manchester United’s next test in the Premier League will be against Tottenham. We expect Alexis to make an appearance from the start and show his offensive versatility, that no doubt will fit into Mourinho’s side.

Sebastian Cardoch is a football data analyst at Twelve.

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Why Pep can put his trust in Zinchenko

A fresh face in the Manchester City starting XI for last weekend’s win over Newcastle United was that of 21-year- old Ukrainian, and product of Shakhtar Donetsk’s academy, Oleksandr Zinchenko. Bought in the summer 2016 from FC Ufa in the Russian Premier League, Zinchenko’s main position was as an attacking midfielder who could play anywhere across the frontline. His talent was already established: at the age of 19 years and 214 days he broke a 20-year- old record held by Andriy Shevchenko as he became Ukraine’s youngest goalscorer for the national team.

In the game against Newcastle, he was given his first league start by Guardiola in a relatively new role for him as the team’s left-back, providing cover for the injured Benjamin Mendy and Fabian Delph. Zinchenko was not fazed, looking at home on the left-hand side of the pitch at the Etihad Stadium. He had more touches than any other player on the field and completed 94% of his passes.

He was caught out on a couple of occasions defensively in the match, and he could be considered to blame for the goal conceded in the 67 th minute. A diagonal pass played in behind him caught him flat-footed and the wrong side of Newcastle’s Jacob Murphy who had a clear run towards a one on one against Ederson. Murphy put it away to make it 2-1.

Full-backs are a vital part of City’s exciting play and style, and there Zinchenko definitely did not disappoint. It was the Ukrainian international’s attacking ability going forward that really caught the eye and left little doubt regarding his talent. Below we show all of his passes, shading them according to their importance to City’s attack.

He was arguably City’s best player in the first half, with a memorable long pass around the 20-minute mark that just about found Sane in the box. Zinchenko was generally pushing high up the pitch, overlapping constantly providing treacherous cut-backs and crosses. Six crosses were put into the box by him from the left, and even though none found a City head they were dangerous – driven in with pace and beautiful shape. Another notable contribution came in the second half as his one- touch pass to De Bruyne in the 72 nd minute opened-up Newcastle’s defence and allowed the Belgian to square the ball to Sterling who was unlucky to hit the woodwork.

It was Zinchenko who ultimately came out on top in Twelve’s Attack Performance Rankings. We look forward to seeing more of him in the future, as he matures and develops.

David Sumpter is the author of Soccermatics.
Emri Dolev is a data scientist at twelve.football

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Twelve’s rating system

This post describes our work at Twelve to develop visualisations of football matches. Our idea is to show, live during matches, how the players are performing. We want to help fans both to see the contributions of individual players and give a tactical view of the game using the same data relied on by managers and coaches.

In this article I’m going to showcase our current visualisations and describe the idea behind the methodology for assigning points to actions.

We have developed a method for evaluating player performance based on everything they do on the ball during the match. Below is our rankings for Manchester City players in their game against Tottenham Hotspur.

These rankings are broken in to four categories attack (green), defence (red), off-the-ball (yellow) and shots & goals (blue).

According to our model Raheem Sterling was man of the match. This is because he scored two goals, which are worth 1000 points each.

Sterling also missed a number of chances before scoring. Some fans might think that these misses should give him negative points. But in Twelve’s system we give Sterling positive points for these misses. This is because Sterling got in to a good position to take the shot, and in the long term there is statistical evidence that creating chances is an important sign of a quality player.

The points for these shots are awarded on the basis of a model called expected goals. We measure the position of the shot and look at historical data about about the probability that shots from these position are typically goals and we assign this as the number of points for a shot. Sterlings best chance would normally be a goal in 42.7% of cases, so we give him 427 points.

So thats goals. Lets move to attack. Kevin De Bruyne is the best City player. Here are his attacking contributions.

His top attacking contributions were given 160 points, because they created a clear cut chance for a teammate. If you click on the passes, you’ll see that two of them got slightly lower scores. These passes were also in to dangerous areas, but didn’t directly result in a chance. In this case, the points are assigned in a way that is similar to expected goals. If a pass takes the ball from a part of the pitch that a team is less likely to score a goal from (e.g. out near the touchline) to a place they are likely to score a goal from (e.g. in the box) then it will get a lot of points.

If you click on ‘All’ in the attack dashboard, you’ll see every pass De Bruyne made that improved the probability of City scoring. Each of these passes got a lower number of points, because although it improved his team’s attacking position the contribution was relatively small. Clicking on these should give you an idea of how much different passes increase danger for the opposition.

We’ll now turn to defence. Here we’ll look at Tottenham Hotspur. Their defence had a lot to do and Kieran Trippier, in particular, didn’t have a good game.

In the dashboard above you can see the mistakes he made (crosses) and the successful defensive actions (stop signs). Trippier made several big mistakes, being dribbled past in and around the box. Add these up and he got a total of -48 points for the match. Again, you can see by clicking on the points that mistakes in front of goal are assigned larger numbers of points than those further away.

One thing we are still working on is a model of off-the-ball actions. The data we use only measures what happens on the ball, but we keep track of where players are and identify the areas of the pitch they typically play in. We then assign points to players when the opposition lose the ball in these areas. We confine off-the-ball points to areas away from goal, so it gives a rough measure of press. It is typically defensive midfielders who are given most credit for pressing. Here is Fernandinho.

Again, if the opposition lose the ball in a more offensive position, then the nearby players are awarded more points.

As the Twelve project develops we’ll share more details. Ultimately, the techniques developed here will become the basis for match analysis websites, a fantasy football game and tools for football analytics. This post should give you a feeling for where we are now and where we are going.

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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.

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Blog about your club using Twelve

We are now trialling Twelve’s player evaluation system and we would like to give access to fans who would like to blog about their own Premier League team. This access will allow you to log in to our analysis tool and export widgets displaying shots, passes and defensive actions of all of your favourite players.

To get an idea of the outputs you can create take a look at the widgets below. Here is Mesut Özil’s important passes against Manchester United.

And here are De Gea’s saves in the same match.

We also provide analysis of multiple matches. Here are Mohammed Salah’s shots over Liverpool’s previous six matches.

The tools can also be used live during matches to analyse how the game is progressing.

Our model of shots is based on expected Goals, while our model of passing and defence is based on a value we assign to each point on the pitch based on how dangerous it is for the opposition. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be writing more about how the algorithm works. What we’d like just now is to identify amateur bloggers who’d like to try it out and give us feedback.

If you are interested, send an email to david at twelve.football with links to at least three articles you have previously written about your club. Youtubers are also welcome to contact us. But you must be doing it for love of the game and not for commercial reasons.

We look forward to hearing from you.

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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.

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