The “worst Manchester United team in years” is how Alan Shearer described the 2019/20 crop after their dismal 1-0 defeat at Newcastle. Goalkeeper David de Gea admitted the team’s performances this season have been “unacceptable” and this is the “most difficult” period he has experienced since joining the club.
The Red Devils extended their worst start to a league season for 30 years with a display bereft of ideas in front of goal. The impotent effort was characterised by post-match stats that showed that no Man Utd player had more touches in the opposition box (4), or attempted more shots (3), versus Newcastle than defender Harry Maguire.
Solskjaer’s men failed to get a single shot on-target against AZ Alkmaar in the Europa League on Thursday and again struggled to carve out clear-cut chances in the final third. Andreas Pereira’s curling strike and Maguire’s free header wide from four yards out was the extent of United’s best efforts at goal in yet another lacklustre showing.
Playmaker Juan Mata contributed little, while in attack Marcus Rashford received no service in a side that has not scored more than one goal in a game since hitting four against Chelsea on the opening weekend. The club now head into the international break only two points above the relegation zone with odds on Solskjaer’s sacking tumbling to 6/4 (2.50).
Speaking last month, United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward said “it is important we are patient” in order to give Solskjaer the time to turn things around. And the Norwegian manager reckons the two-week gap between now and their game against Liverpool has come at a good time as it gives him the chance to “sort the players’ heads out”.
However, underlying performance data suggests the ship might take quite some time to turn around. Sure, the Red Devils’ have improved immeasurably at the back; their defence has conceding eight times so far which is the third-best record in the division, but it is in attack where the major problems lie.
United’s Expected Goals (xG) output has been largely inflated by the award of four penalties in their favour over the opening eight games. Exclude those spot-kicks and set-piece situations and Solskjaer’s side are averaging a paltry 0.59 xG tally from open play per-game with only Newcastle (0.51) ranked below the 20-time champions – the Toon have already had to face five of the Big Six in the early exchanges.
Taking on Liverpool at Old Trafford in a fortnight is a cataclysmic affair and it looks likely Solskjaer will be situ for the occasion. A more gentile schedule follows thereafter but major surgery is required if United are to realise serious aspirations of consolidating a top-six position, let alone challenge for the Champions League places this term.
“Top of the table Swansea are bigger than evens at home to rock-bottom Stoke? Banker material” That was just one of countless tweets that appeared on my Twitter feed on Saturday morning. Few questioned the quip, and many jumped on the bandwagon, backing the Welsh league leaders without a second glance.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing but those of an EFL analytics persuasion will have offered a consoling arm around the shoulder at 5pm before sneaking in a sly, ‘told you so’.
This is the result that Stoke had threatened for large swathes of the season. Yes, the abrasive Nathan Jones had exaggerated performance levels in his dealings with the press but only through exasperation at seeing his Potters outfit continually commit hara-kiri.
Goalkeeper Jack Butland (and his underperforming defence) have made countless mistakes leading to completely avoidable goals. Meanwhile, the Staffordshire side have conceded a divisional-high 19% of shots faced and a huge 46% of on-target attempts, whilst also converting chances at the opposite end of the field at a similarly dreadful rate.
Outside of those elementary, unforced errors, the Potters have delivered reasonable showings. Of course, Stoke haven’t been as strong as pre-season odds suggested, although data pointers rank Jones’ men as an upper mid-table team based on opportunities generated and chances conceded.
This result could be the short in the arm required for a turnaround. Speaking after the Swansea success, Jones said, “That was our best performance since I’ve been here, by a mile.” Victory was the Potters’ first of the campaign in their 11th game and dramatically avoided equalling a club record 17-match winless run set in 1984 and 1989.
The whole side defended as a unit, with Jones bawling about pressing from the touchline, and his back four did the basics well with Bruno Martins Indi adding solidity at left-back. Joe Allen produced a timely throwback with a fiercely energetic midfield performance, Peter Etebo was effective and Badou Ndiay caught the eye once more.
In attack, Stoke took their chances and a reinvigorated Jones reckons “a culture of blaming and not really caring” is now “starting to turn” – just four days after he appeared to suggest he was about to be sacked. The Stoke board are smart operators, keen to give the highly-rated coach time to find a winning formula. They may feel the Potters campaign stars here.