It’s already being billed as one the most unpredictable Premier League seasons ever, with no less than nine different teams leading the way at some point before January has even ended. With no team staking a solid claim in becoming the champions-elect, Manchester United are the latest contender to the supposed throne.
9 – Manchester City’s win sees them finish the day top of the Premier League table for the first time this season, becoming the ninth different side to end a day top this term, the most within a single top-flight campaign since 1986-87 (also 9). Rotation. pic.twitter.com/xphNfid4ji
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) January 26, 2021
This lofty position is something that United had grown accustomed to ignoring post-Ferguson, spending as many days in first place between 2013-14 and 2019-20 as they had in ninth position (51), such were their woes.
In the last couple of seasons, United’s streakiness under Solskjaer had been their undoing – periods of strong runs of results such as the Project Restart period were undermined by fallow periods, such as the start of this season. This is evident when looking at United’s rolling Expected Goals (xG) figures over the Norwegian’s tenure, with fairly long spells of over and under performance, such is the rollercoaster ride United offer.
However, since December began – and coincidentally just as they were dumped out of the Champions League – the Red Devils finally found a formula that worked, picking up seven wins from 10 matches (D3) to gain the most points of any Premier League team in that period (24). So, are Manchester United the real deal or are they riding their luck?
Manchester United’s ponderous nature at the start of matches this season probably should have cost them more than it actually has.
Ademola Lookman’s early goal at Craven Cottage against United last week was the sixth they’d shipped in the first 15 minutes of Premier League matches this season. Only Fulham themselves (7) have conceded more in that period. That amounts to almost a quarter of Manchester United’s total of goals conceded (24% – 6/25).
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s squad aren’t faring much better at the other end of the field during the infancy of matches. Only Arsenal have scored a lower percentage of their Premier League goals in the first 15 minutes than United this season (8%).
Data as of 25 Jan 2021
Even when they don’t concede, they still allow efforts on goal while taking very few themselves. Manchester United rank in the bottom six teams in the Premier League for total shots in the first 15 minutes of matches, while they are also towards the bottom for efforts against in the same period.
Data as of 25 Jan 2021
This shaky foundation filters into United’s first-half results this season, drawing 11 of 19 matches at the break, which is the most of any team in the league. Their results would place them 11th in the standings overall.
Comeback Kings On The Road
Fortunately, Solskjaer’s charges have developed a knack of fighting back quickly and decisively. Manchester United have won 21 points from losing positions in the Premier League this campaign, more than double any other team in the division.
All 21 of those points have been accrued in wins, seven in all, which is the joint-third most in a Premier League season from behind, after Newcastle United in 2001-02 (10) and Manchester United themselves in 2012-13 (9). The 21 points won on the road from this position is already a Premier League record for a campaign. United are closing in on the Premier League top five for points won by a team from behind and need just three more to break into that in the remaining half of the season.
Only three previous Premier League champions have won more points when trailing than United this season and the ability to drag yourself out of a hole isn’t a bad trait to share with previous title-winners, who’ve more often than not been put through their paces in a title race.
Missing Home Support?
At home, United have stabilised their form after a rocky start. They failed to win any of their opening four home league games this season for the first time since 1972-73 but since then have won four out of five in the Premier League at Old Trafford without trailing at any point (D1).
That being said, United haven’t exactly thrilled at The Theatre of Dreams either, aside from one game against Leeds. 50% of their home goals came in the match against Marcelo Bielsa’s team (6/12), as did 51% of the minutes they’ve been leading at home this season (88/172).
United have relied upon individual brilliance and late shows to get them over the line. For a team so close to the top of the table, it’s perhaps surprising that Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s team rank joint 10th for time spent in a winning position. They do minimise the damage when they fall behind though, ranking seventh overall in the league for time trailing in matches.
At home, United are rank 14th for minutes led, with all of the sides with fewer minutes leading at home being in eighth or lower in the table. They’ve actually been behind at Old Trafford this season for more minutes (187), though 166 of those were against Crystal Palace and Tottenham in the opening two home games of 2020/21.
An FA Cup match-winning cameo aside against Liverpool, Bruno Fernandes has been unable to maintain his incredibly high standards in recent weeks, with other United players having to step it up in order to maintain United’s title challenge.
The much-maligned Paul Pogba has been vital to United’s recent form, providing match-deciding goals in the wins over Burnley and Fulham, as well providing a good link role with the rest of the United team in mopping up danger and ticking things over.
This is arguably the Frenchman’s best run of form in the Premier League since the early days of Solskjaer’s reign, where he scored eight times and provided five assists in the Norwegian’s first nine matches in charge of United.
Pogba’s upturn in fortunes is clear to see when comparing his stats per 90 from December onwards to June-November in 2020. He’s shooting more regularly (1.5 to 1), having more touches in the opposition box so is consequently less withdrawn, as well as playing more passes into the box (3.9 to 3.1).
He may not rank top of several categories for Manchester United players since December, but Pogba is in the top three or four for the squad in that timeframe, suggesting he’s an exceptional all-rounder when he isn’t the absolute focus/reliance of the team itself. The one thing he is top for is the number of times he’s won possession (67), which ranks 7th in the league overall and that appears to be his defined role within the team.
Pogba Since December 2020:
|PL Since December||Pogba||United Rank|
|Passes played into the box (inc. crosses)||33||3|
|Successful Passes ending in Final Third||123||2|
Regardless of whether United can clinch a 14th Premier League title or not in 2020-21, it is undeniable that huge progress has been made over the past 12 months. At the same stage in 2019-20, United were eight in the table with 28 points and a huge 24 points behind Liverpool. This year they are 12 points better off at this stage and just one point from the leaders.
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