Last week I took a look at how changes in managers have affected the relegation chances of Swansea and Hull. Today we’re going to look at team performance through the lens of managers again, but at a much larger club.
A Few Words About Louis van Gaal
We need to be honest about what Jose Mourinho walked in to with this Manchester United team.
United under Louis van Gaal were one of the worst-managed super teams possible. I have mentioned this on our podcast at various times, but this remains a staggering factoid:
In van Gaal’s last season, with a fantastically expensive squad, they took fewer shots per game in attack than 17th place Sunderland.
For reference, United took 11.3 shots per game in 15-16. A year before, Burnley and Hull both averaged 11.3 shots per game. And were relegated.
If your attack is posting the same shots numbers as relegated teams – when you are Manchester fucking United – you have problems.
Yes, United managed to finish 5th. With a +14 goal difference. The same goal difference as perennial Premier League titans West Ham. +14 was considerably less than 4th place Manchester City, who happened to have finished on the same points total as United (66), but backed into 4th place with a far more typical +30 goal difference.
It’s not like they didn’t have shot volume guys in the squad, either. Rooney, Depay, Martial, Mata, even Lingard have all had substantial shot output in the past. Clearly, the lack of shots was via tactical instruction, which means van Gaal was to blame.
The most shocking part of this to me is that even shooting less often in exchange presumably better shots, they barely moved the needle on shot quality. That last season under LVG they came in just above league average, at about 10.5%.
All of this is a lengthy way of saying that despite van Gaal’s big name and pedigree, Jose Mourinho inherited a bit of a mess.
(Note: the United numbers are a week old and pre-Ibra injury, but I doubt they change much between now and the end of the season.)
Looking at the numbers above, it’s very clear that Mourinho has had an enormous impact on United’s underlying numbers, even if the league table position looks the same. United under LVG were a decaying team that were lucky to finish 5th. United in Mourinho’s first season have numbers consistent with a top 4 team.
United have improved on both sides of the ball, seeing a big boost in both attacking and defensive xG. They take nearly six more shots per game than the same team last season, while limiting the opposition to two fewer shots as well. That’s impressive and a radical change that is largely down to improved coaching.
The increase in shots has a small caveat in that average shot quality is worse overall, but they are forcing opponents to take worse shots than last year as well.
Plotted via time sequence across a match (thanks James Yorke), you can see the troubled production under LVG compared with the huge gap Mourinho’s team is creating.
Beyond the scoring numbers, what else has changed? Well, Mourinho has De Gea playing the ball longer out of the back, and more regularly. The press has also improved slightly, which is a bit odd because Mourinho employs a middle block press, while LVG was generally known for more man-oriented pressing work. United give up about half as much xG per game from set pieces now versus under the Dutchman.
In relative terms, the defense is good enough to win titles. The attack isn’t quite there yet, but the difference between LVG’s numbers and now is so substantial that United fans should be delighted.
What Can Be Improved?
So United are good. But how can they become good enough to once again sit at the top of the table?
For starters, they need to take better shots.
This is all United shots paired with all United goals this season. Interestingly, there’s a lot of joy from the left channel, presumably from an inverted forward curling in goals, but almost none from the right. There is also a LOT of chaff from range. Shot volume in general skews heavily to the left, which is something opposition scouts would want to be aware of.
In aspirational terms, this is where Barcelona 15-16 scored their goals from. Want to be a super club in attack? Take some luck and variance out of the equation. Figure out how to create more of this.
Another huge area for improvement in both United eras is set piece goals. Under LVG it was about .18 xG a game. Under Mourinho, it’s up fractionally to .22. With this personnel, plus how often they generate shots and fouls around the opposition box, a good set piece coach could likely improve that by .3 or .4 goals a game. That by itself is good enough to push United near title territory.
Hey, Manchester United… I can help with that. Call me.
Europe and beyond
Despite never really having been in the top 4 all season, United still have a great chance at playing Champions League football next year. According to Paul Carr at ESPN, United are 58% to win the Europe League, and 35% to secure a top 4 finish in the Premier League. The combined probabilities make them about 73% likely to play in the CL for 17-18.
As you can see from the analysis above, Mourinho’s arrival on Manchester has improved them massively. Part of this can be credited to the poor shape that LVG left them in, but most of the credit has to come back to The Special One and the superstar squad of players up at Old Trafford. They are much better than they were last year, and generally a lot better to watch as well.
The underlying numbers this year will put them in the hunt for a Champions League place every season. With some minor improvements as noted above, Mourinho could return the red part of Manchester to title hunting next year, territory they have not occupied for quite some time.