By Jack George
Waking up on the 2nd of November 2020, things were weird for Manchester United. The side was still riding off their amazing 5-0 win against RB Leipzig which came eight days after a 2-1 victory against French powerhouse Paris Saint Germain. Later that day they were to face Arsenal in an important Premier League game, especially considering how horrid their form had been in the league.
They opened their season with a 3-1 loss to Crystal Palace, and only just scraped a 3-2 win against Brighton after VAR allowed Bruno Fernandes to stroke home a penalty in the 100th minute – after the final whistle had already sounded. Then, the disastrous tie with Tottenham clash where they conceded six goals; among their worst displays in recent memory.
United lost to Arsenal, a burdening defeat considering their nightmarish league form. It was only 1-0 but seemed much more, outlining the structural problems in the side and allowing their London rivals to cruise to victory. Many fans had given up on the league by that point, merely hoping their side could scrape into European qualification.
Ole Gunner Solskjaer’s side topped off a poor week by losing 2-1 to underdogs İstanbul Başakşehir. This result cost them as they slipped out of the Champions League after back-to-back losses against Paris Saint Germain and RB Leipzig, where fans questioned Ole’s tactics and individual errors from players.
However, United regrouped and now find themselves top of the league having played 15+ games for the first time since the 2012/13 season: Alex Ferguson’s last campaign in charge.
On Monday morning they will face 2nd-placed Liverpool in what could be a season-defining moment for the Red Devils. Winning on Merseyside would see them go six points clear of the old enemy.
But what has changed so radically for the red half of Manchester since the 2nd of November?
The front four has been key to their resurgence. Bruno Fernandes revitalised the side after arriving a year ago, while Marcus Rashford has been a consistent threat when driving forwards and also showed versatility at times to occupy the right side of attack with either Anthony Martial or Paul Pogba on the left (when Edinson Cavani can play upfront).
Fernandes plays a very direct style of football, which is perfect for Ole’s counter attacking system. He has played 1,298 minute this season – the third most for a United player after Harry Maguire and Marcus Rashford.
He takes 3.12 shots per 90 minutes with 1.11 being on target. He averages 0.57 expected goals (xG) per 90 (including penalties) and averages 0.41 expected assists (xA) a game, while 6.67 passes into the final third and 3.13 into the box 90 minutes, showcasing his ability to break lines with his passes and play a vertical style of football.
He has carried the ball 1921 yards towards the opponent’s goal, an average of 133.4 yards per 90, also showcasing his ability to evade pressure and keep the speed of the ball high.
Last season, Fernandes was seen as the best performing player by far, but while most of United’s play goes through him (he has taken the most touches out of all his teammates this season), he is no longer solely responsible for creating and scoring chances.
For one, Anthony Martial has improved considerably with pressure incoming from Edinson Cavani. When the Uruguayan striker signed towards the end of the transfer window, many saw him as a panic option and as a fading striker who didn’t suit the Red Devils’ needs in the transfer market.
However, while Cavani is only a short-term fix, he has showed quality for his new club while also improving Martial. He is a striker that never relied on pace and instead on movement in the box, which is why at 33 years old he is showing no signs of decline.
He has averaged 0.71 xG per game and has scored 0.88 per 90 minutes. Martial himself has actually underperformed his expected goals – with an xG of 3.1 he has scored just twice in the premier league but is showing improvements in commitment and build up play.
Paul Pogba’s positioning has been really interesting as of late. Ole Gunner Solskjaer has refused to move from his standard 4-2-3-1 formation – one which allows Bruno Fernandes the ability to roam around the pitch.
Pogba hasn’t started often but in his most recent 90 minutes, he played on the left of midfield. While the world-cup winning midfielder has mostly played in a midfield two for United, Solskjaer has preferred a combination of Scott McTominay and Fred in the bigger games. McTominay and Fred offer more intensity and mobility, while Pogba and Nemanja Matic play in games when Solskjaer knows his team will have majority of the ball.
According to Smarterscout – a football website that rates players in certain aspects from 0-99 using advanced analytics – Scott McTominay has a rating of 68 for disrupting opposition moves and 43 for recovering a moving ball, while Fred has a rating of 95 and 65 respectively. Meanwhile Fred has a rating of 77 for ground duels in possession and 78 for ground duels out of possession, with McTominay rating 96 and 92 respectively.
This shows their ability to press, maintain possession and win duels in the middle of the park, which is vital to the way Manchester United play. When their deeper midfielders win duels, they can release Fernandes and start a counterattack, which is United’s biggest strength.
Combined, Fred and McTominay have made 401 pressures, at 14.69 per match, showing their ability to press opponents in midfield and win possession for their side.
Pogba’s strengths are his long passing, vision and technical ability and he often drifts in from the left of midfield when playing there. He is also surprisingly good at one-on-one situations – often beating his marker on the wing. Bruno Fernandes and Anthony Martial also both often drift to the left and Luke Shaw has the engine to overlap meaning Pogba is able to come inside and influence play from a more central position if he starts on the left.
Shaw also has good attacking numbers – he’s made 20 key passes and 459 carries, with a progressive distance of 1860 yards.
It’s likely that Pogba could be seen more on the left throughout the season as Ole tries to incorporate him into the side.
Manchester United have come a long way since November 2nd. A more defined system, individuals improving, better pressing in midfield and fantastic attacking numbers have all contributed to what could be a title charge from United.
However, the end of the season seems so far away – and we’ve seen how much United can change in a short period of time. November 2nd looks years ago now, but with the Red Devils finally top of the table once more, no one really knows what to expect.
All statistics from https://fbref.com/en/ unless stated otherwise.