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Crossing Over: Lukaku’s Success Will Depend Heavily on Manchester United’s System


STATS’ Playing Styles data shows the striker’s goal efficiency could flourish at Old Trafford – if his manager puts him on the end of crosses and allows him to operate in space

By: Kevin Chroust

To some, Jose Mourinho’s frustration with wanting more from Manchester United’s transfer window will be received as the manager being his contrarian self. His club just spent big to bring on the Premier League’s No. 3 scorer over the past four seasons as he enters his prime.

To others, his complaints are valid given the insipid nature of the Red Devils’ finishing last season and the subtraction of two names in a historical class that newcomer Romelu Lukaku has years of remaining work to join – Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney.

The second of those names is one of only three players to reach 50 Premier League goals at a younger age than Lukaku, so the traditionally sexy question of whether a high-profile move to Old Trafford from Goodison Park can benefit Lukaku’s career the way it did Rooney’s is going to linger.

Forget all of that for now.

There are more fascinating ways to consider the Lukaku move, and the real predictive analysis has far less to do with Mourinho’s mouth or Rooney’s legacy after a season in which the England great’s withdrawn role was anything but comparable to what Lukaku’s will be.

What’s of more relevance – and can be properly considered now with a dig into quantifiable player- and team-tendency data – is that the 24-year-old Belgium international is entering a United system in which he seems to have the opportunity to succeed on levels similar to those he enjoyed last season at Everton. He can even surpass them if he can become more effective in attacking situations without goal-facing space.

It’s noteworthy that Lukaku went through the league last season with only one goal from the penalty spot and one from a free kick. Virtually all of his scoring threat comes from the run of play, so he’s a particularly worthwhile player to evaluate with playing styles.

Lukaku scored nine of his 25 league goals off of crosses last season, despite operating in an Everton system with a playing style that came in just below the league average of time spent in crossing scenarios.

In a comparison of the 2016-17 styles of United and Everton against league averages, Everton rarely differentiated themselves and were at -3 percent of the league crossing average. Manchester United were positive 10 percent.

The playing style web shows the league average as the 0% differentiation line.

Switch Lukaku’s shirt from blue to red and, without even looking at the data, the first thoughts that come to mind are promising with outside players such as Antonio Valencia and Marcus Rashford – and possibly Ivan Perisic if United eventually agree on a price with Inter Milan – putting balls into the box with frequency that Everton couldn’t match. Playing style numbers back that up.

Where the Toffees did distinguish themselves some stylistically were in counter attack (+14) and fast tempo (+12 percent). Notice United’s similar counter (+15) and a drastic increase in fast tempo (+81), which one would think bodes well for a No. 9 threat such as Lukaku who’s physical profile at least passes the eye test in comparison to Ibrahimovic.

What’s more is the playing style presence during their goals linked up for the top two categories. Lukaku existed in a crossing style during 36 percent of his goals and 20 percent came from direct play. Ibrahimovic: 31 percent crossing and 19 percent direct play. But that doesn’t mean Ibrahimovic was necessarily effective in Mourinho’s system.

One can argue Lukaku did more with less last season than the big Swede by looking into STATS’ expected goal values, which is an efficiency metric determined by the likelihood of a goal being scored based on the position from where a player’s shots were taken. Lukaku’s xG for the season was 15.1, and of the 25 he scored, he needed 4.4 shots per goal. His +9.9 differential was unmatched in the Premier League.

Ibrahimovic’s xG was 19.4. He scored 17 – which on its own isn’t necessarily relevant in comparison with other players considering his late-season knee injury – but it’s worthwhile to note his -2.4 differential and that the goals he did score came at a rate of 7.1 shots per.

Here’s where the question of how Lukaku can still grow as a player comes in and what United might need to do to maximize his efficiency if he ends up struggling in different styles.

There’s little yet to support Lukaku can be the kind of player Ibrahimovic has often been with back to goal and tighter marking while playing for clubs with such possession-based, attacking-third threats. The Belgian has on occasion been criticized for a heavy touch, which may be on display with more time operating in less space within scenarios of sustained threat and build up.

At least in the Premier League, it’s hard to say he’s ever experienced the tight quarters he may see with United, who operated last season 30 percent above the league average of sustained threat and 41 percent higher in build up. But the Everton managerial change away from Roberto Martinez’s style before last season might have stunted any growth that was happening. That, or it might show how Mourinho can tinker his system to get immediate results from Lukaku.

Everton’s build up in 2015-16 was 25 percent higher than the league average, so far closer to Manchester United’s ’16-17 rate than Everton’s under Ronald Koeman (+4). Forty-six percent of the playing style presence during Lukaku’s scoring was crossing, but Everton’s crossing style (+5) didn’t exactly exploit that to great ends. Twelve percent of Lukaku’s goals came from build up.

Now consider his efficiency. In that final season with Martinez, Lukaku scored 18 goals but had an xG of 21.2 with a 6.7 shots-per-goal rate.

Considering his efficiency under Koeman, it follows that Martinez’s system probably didn’t provide the best styles for the striker to convert opportunities.

So for Mourinho, it might be more about maximizing the playing styles in which players such as his new striker can succeed rather than continuing to buy, buy, buy until the end of the window.

It can be statistically argued he didn’t maximize Ibrahimovic after signing him last year, and Mourinho’s first season at Old Trafford ended with the Red Devils eighth in the league with 54 goals (excluding own goals for). That was -16.3 of their expected goal value (70.3). They were outscored by Bournemouth, and the Red Devils’ differential between goals for and expected goals for was worse than every club other than Southampton (-27.6) and Stoke City (-17.2).

Juan Mata scored six league goals, but no one else other than Ibrahimovic topped five. Players not putting the ball in the net – on the surface, that seems like something a manager should be able to vent about. But playing style? That falls on the manager.

Consider the sequence of events and place blame accordingly.