What exactly is going on with Manchester United? There are plenty of other things to write about in the wake of Week 11 in the Premier League but in a season where the defending champion is having the worst start to a season in the Premier League era the thing that confounds me the most is how Manchester United can be this poor going forward. It’s easy to blame Wayne Rooney for the fall-off but this goes far deeper than one player under-performing. Like the malaise at Chelsea, this is something that has its roots in a combination of the system, the personalities and a number of players failing short of their best.
If you said you were sending out Anthony Martial, Juan Mata, Ander Herrera and a traffic cone – which is essentially what Wayne Rooney has been playing like – as your front four then you still expect a few goals every once in a while. United have now gone 270 minutes plus stoppage time since they scored a goal in all competitions. It isn’t clear to me which of the following is more disturbing:
1) That United only managed a total of two shots on target across the two Premier League nil-nil draws despite 59% possession in the Manchester Derby and 55% possession at Selhurst Park, or
2) United couldn’t score against Championship club Middlesbrough despite putting six shots on target and they missed three of the four penalties they took through either seeing them saved, Rooney and Young, or missing the target entirely (Carrick).
The conclusion from the two Premier League matches is that United are content to kick the ball among themselves without the will and/or ability to make that possession dangerous. The conclusion from the League Cup loss is that even when they do have a shot on goal they aren’t very good at converting them. The issue generating chances is probably the bigger problem to be honest. Finishing can come and go whether you call it confidence or luck but if you aren’t even getting chances on target then the quality of your finishing is sort of a moot point.
If you’re going to take the popular stance that benching Wayne Rooney is the path to enlightenment for United then what you’re going to have to do is provide an alternative. James Wilson provides some speed but didn’t show a great deal when given a chance against Boro. Anthony Martial looks like he’s going to be the real deal but moving him to center forward and supporting him with Ander Herrera, Juan Mata and one of Jesse Lingard, Ashley Young or Memphis Depay doesn’t feel like an alignment with a lot of goals in it.
There are a few ways to get goals from your attacking group and the real problem with United is that they aren’t very good at any of them. Option number one is for the attackers to create moments of brilliance on their own. Rooney used to be able to do this and Martial hints that he’s going to get there but right this minute there’s no one at United that you can see doing something outrageous in the way Coutinho did twice against Chelsea on Saturday, Hazard did from open play when he was still alive, and any number of Premier League players (e.g., Siggurdsson, Willian, Eriksen, Cabaye) do from free kicks on a semi-regular basis.
The second way that the attack can be productive is via interchanges between the attacking players in the attacking third that result more from a collective brilliance rather than individual skills. I’m thinking about the sort of goal Chelsea was scoring in the first half of last season or the goal Ozil fed to Joel Campbell for Arsenal’s third on Saturday. United just don’t seem to have any fluidity of interchange between their attacking players that might lead to a great, or even a good, team goal.
Finally, we get to the old school English way of scoring goals. This is when the supporting players – outside backs, holding midfielders, etc. – feed the attack and present them with excellent chances. It’s Hector Bellerin bombing forward to tee up Mesut Ozil against Bayern Munich. It’s Younes Kaboul moving into a wide area on the left of the midfield and putting in a beautiful cross for Sunderland as they put the icing on the 3-0 Tyne-Wear Derby last weekend. Yet again, United don’t really scare you here. The supposedly fortified holding midfield of Schneiderlin, Carrick and Schweinsteiger haven’t been creating chances – the numbers say they’ve created a total of 10 chances between the three of them so far this season with exactly zero assists between the three. It doesn’t get much prettier when you look at the outside backs where Darmian, Blind, Rojo, and Valencia have only nine between them with Rojo having the only assist in that group. Luke Shaw was doing better in this regard with an assist and four chances created before he was injured but it seems unlikely that he’ll be a factor for the rest of the season. I know that the chances created stat isn’t the end-all-be-all of statistical analysis but for all the Rooney haters out there, it’s worth noting that he’s second on the team in chances created behind only Juan Mata. Remove him and you really need to wonder where the chances are going to come from.
It looks like United are likely to struggle to generate a competitive attack so long as the current group is doing the trying. Perhaps the bigger questions that confront United in January are the following:
1) Exactly what positions do they need to upgrade? Center forward? #10? Left-sided attacker despite spending big on Memphis over the summer? Holding midfielder? Outside back?
2) Given the results in the transfer market over the three windows that Van Gaal has been in charge do they want to trust him to spend another big chunk of their cash?
The potential shopping list looks a lot like the one that was addressed over the summer which would be a lot of crow to swallow. Not only does the summer’s work seem to be failing but it seems to be getting worse. Memphis started off playing regularly even if he was ineffective and now he’s not playing. Ditto Matteo Darmian who started early and appeared to be fairly effective but he’s been criticized and pulled from the starting line-up as the season has progressed. Schweinsteiger arrived with concerns about his fitness and whether it has to do with that or just the age-related eroding of skill, he’s really not produced anything. Schneiderlin, while not necessarily the most glamorous signing, seemed like can’t miss buy based on his excellence and versatility as part of a two-man holding midfield at Southampton. The former Saint hasn’t been “bad” per se but he hasn’t been a difference-maker either. Whether it is due to the inadequacy of those around him or that he was, to at least some extent, a product of Southampton’s system as many others at Swansea and Southampton have turned out to be after big money moves isn’t obvious but he just hasn’t been all that United supporters thought they’d be getting.
So, what would you do? Keep throwing money at the issue? Hope the current group figures it out with more time together? Fire the manager? This isn’t going to be an easy problem to solve.
The Title Race (Ranked from favorites to most likely to miss out on the Champions League)
Manchester City – It wasn’t pretty but the league leaders got the job done at home against Norwich City eventually. Perhaps the concern here should be that in the race for better goal differential the week where Arsenal played on the road to recent bogey team Swansea while City hosted a Norwich City side that recently gave up six goals to Newcastle seemed like a weekend that City should improve their goal differential advantage rather than seeing is paired down by two. The upside? City laid a bit of an egg on the day and weren’t punished for it.
Arsenal – Being an environmentally conscious group, Arsenal decided to recycle the @Watford script from Week 9 rather than creating a new one. The Gunners were outplayed by Swansea in the first half and were lucky not to concede a goal when Mertesacker was guilty of a handball in the box (that he disguised well by lunging his head toward it) or when Jonjo Shelvey put Bafetimbi Gomis in all alone on Petr Cech only to see the out-of-form forward make a mess of it. The Arsenal side that came out in the second half was unrecognizable from the group in the first half and Swansea decided to help them along by committing some bad mistakes of their own with the defense falling asleep on Giroud in the middle of the box on a corner kick for Arsenal’s first goal and Fabianski reminding us how he got his Flappianski nickname on Arsenal’s second.
Of note here, Joel Campbell looked every bit as good a fit in the right attacking spot as either Aaron Ramsey or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has been. He scored a nice goal after the match had more or less been decided but he had some solid play before that. The notion that Arsenal’s attack might be crippled by going with their fourth choice player in that spot was a bit of a fabrication anyway. After ten matches I had exactly one fewer goal than Arsenal had managed from that spot. Joel Campbell has now equaled that total after one match. I’m not suggesting that Campbell is the better player or that Arsenal are better off with him starting but the fact that they’ve been winning has papered over the fact that Arsenal have been getting next to nothing from that spot all season. If Campbell continues to track back and give effort on defense and chips in the occasional goal then Arsenal won’t be taking a step down while they wait for Ramsey/Walcott/Ox to return.
Oh, can we finally give the Ozil-hate a rest. He’s really freakin’ good.
Manchester United – I think we covered them adequately in the introduction.
The Second Tier (Ranked from most likely to break into the Champions League to least likely)
West Ham – Just when you think you have them figured out they play a real stinker against a club that most are convinced will end up at least worried about their position with respect to the relegation zone. Andy Carroll made a hideous error that gifted the Hornets their first and it just never improved from there. Fortunately for the Hammers all the contenders for fourth (and even the most likely for third) look like they have significant flaws so as long as this is only a one-off.
Leicester City – The Foxes celebrated their first week as official “Second Team of the MMM for 2015-16” with as Leicester City a victory as you could script. They went down because, of course they did. They came storming back with two goals from Riyad Mahrez, two assists from Marc Albrighton and then the inevitable goal from Jamie Vardy. Lest anyone think that a two goal lead was safe they conceded a penalty and then needed a strong Kasper Schmeichel save late to save the win. Just pure excitement. There will almost inevitably be a month where they really struggle because they just don’t have many goals outside of Vardy and Mahrez but it’ll be fun getting there.
Spurs – Spurs don’t play until after I hit “publish” so we’ll talk about the match with Aston Villa along with the North London Battle of Good Against Evil Derby next week..
Liverpool – Liverpool haven’t been terribly sympathetic in recent years for a variety of reasons but the current state of Chelsea and the arrival of Jurgen Klopp make it clear that everyone not wearing Chelsea blue was rooting for Liverpool going into this one. Chelsea showed a brief sign of life as Ramires scored before everyone had come to the realization that Jose Mourinho’s answer to “what do I do to fix this mess?” was “start Ramires”. The two goals from Coutinho were of the highest quality and Benteke did his best Olivier Giroud impression coming in for a second consecutive substitute goal. It was a good effort for the Reds against a wounded opponent.
Crystal Palace – The symbolic value of a point from Manchester United the brand name is probably of more value than anything we learned about the Eagles in this one. It is their first positive result against a team above them in the table so there is that but it felt more like United being the architects of their own misery more so than Palace imposing their will on the Red Devils.
Everton – The Toffees scored six so it’s hard to give them anything but full marks for their Week 11 efforts but it was at home against Sunderland and, unless you’re Newcastle, a match with Sunderland is about as easy as the sledding gets in Premier League this season. The bright side is that if Roberto Martinez can continue to get production from Gerard Deulofeu and Aruna Kone as well as Romelu Lukaku and occasionally Ross Barkley then Everton are going to have a good season. If Deulofeu and Kone just come out to play against the relegation fodder of the Premier League then maybe less so.
Southampton – The Saints just destroyed their South Coast little brothers Bournemouth in the first half and you wondered if it was going to be a third straight occasion where the Cherries conceded five or more goals. A funny thing happened on the way to the route, Bournemouth came out and flipped the script in the second half. They didn’t manage to actually score or anything so the Saints picked up a 2-0 win but Ronald Koeman will not be thrilled after seeing his side play so poorly against such weak opposition. He also won’t be thrilled to be without Victor Wanyama next weekend after his midfield destroyer picked up two yellow cards.
Chelsea – What a freakin’ mess. They benched Fabregas and that didn’t really make anything better. Diego Costa might face another retrospective ban for kicking out at Martin Skrtel when the two collided. Jose Mourinho was a mess in his press conference adopting a Belichick-ian posture and saying that he had nothing to say on any of the obvious questions that demand answers about the club’s performance and the security of his job.
The Relegation Battle (Ranked from most likely to be relegated to least)
Sunderland – After the victory in the Tyne-Wear Derby there were intimations on social media that maybe the Black Cats were going to get bit of a bump from the arrival of Sam Allardyce. I think we can safely call that a #DeadCatBounce rather than any meaningful bump after Everton just destroyed Big Sam’s boys at Goodison Park. I was mildly interested in the notion of Patrick Van Aanholt playing a wide midfield role for fantasy purposes until I saw the final score. Hard to imagine any experiment that was tried on this day is going to have any staying power.
Aston Villa – Villa have yet to lose to play Spurs in Week 11 so we can cover the latest Villa Park crisis next Monday in this space.
Newcastle United – Well, they didn’t lose.
Norwich City – So close but the football gods punished them for putting out a line-up with neither of their most creative players – Wes Hoolahan or Nathan Redmond.
Bournemouth – It is looking increasingly grim in this particular corner of the South Coast. The Cherries just don’t have the guns for the fight they’re in and while the rottenness of Sunderland, Aston Villa and Newcastle give them at least some hope all three of those clubs have the resources to try to buy their way out of trouble in January whereas you get the feeling that the Cherries will make modest, if any, changes in the window.
Newcomer of the Year of the Week
Odion Ighalo has to get the award here after two goals this weekend after two assists in Week 10. He’s been the shining star of an attack that varies between efficient and laborious.
Young Player of the Year of the Week
Gerard Deulofeu has been extremely productive over the past month or so with a goal and four assists in his past five Premier League matches. That sounds good any way you say it but it gets even better when you consider that one of those five matches was a substitute appearance where he only got 18 minutes plus stoppage time against Manchester United. How no one else was interested for the modest sum of £4million is beyond me.
Player of the Year of the Week
Riyad Mahrez turned the King Power Stadium spotlight over to Jamie Vardy for about a month but apparently he wasn’t content letting Vardy carry the club. His brace contributed heavily to another three points to put the Foxes into third and put him back near the top of the list in any conversation about player of the season so far. That there are two Leicester City players in this conversation is pretty remarkable. I should be considering Aruna Kone here but vs. Sunderland has to count against him in the reckoning.
Manager of the Year of the Week
we'll give this to Roberto Martinez. Not so much because his team put six on Sunderland but because he's turned things around from last season when it looked like he was at least in modest danger of losing his job after an extremely disappointing season. The six goals didn't hurt either but, because it was Sunderland, that can't be the only reason.
My Week in Expert Leagues
Apparently there’s something in the Togga scoring system that just works for me because things went swimmingly for me in all of my Togga-related fantasy endeavors in Week 11 and I’m confident saying that even before the Spurs/Villa match on Monday. Less so in my Fantrax matches.
I took it on the chin in the IEFSA Expert League on Fantrax for the first time in a month as @FantasyYIRMA spanked me pretty good (unless Danny Rose has the fantasy match to end all fantasy matches on Monday). I continued to get solid production from Olivier Giroud and Ayoze Perez and an above average day from Hector Bellerin but couldn’t overcome the benching of Cesc Fabregas and the injury to James Morrison that meant I had to stick with Cesc despite that benching (we have really thin benches in this league). To make matters worse, YIRMA had about as strong a weekend in midfield as you can have with Ozil picking up two assists and Yaya Toure and Steven Davis each netting a goal. Throw in adequate performances from the rest of his group and it was a bit of a blowout. Like Jose Mourinho, I don’t have anything further to say on the topic.
The pain of my IEFSA loss was blunted somewhat by my return to form in the Togga Premier League Fantasy Expert League where I feel good about getting a win over @RotowireAndrew despite there still being a player in play for each of us on Monday. Despite Andrew getting a massive 40 points from Romelu Lukaku and solid efforts from Kolarov, Wijnaldum, De Bruyne and Stekelenburg I have a substantial lead headed into the final match of the week. Unlike most of the weekends when I do well in this league, my points were pretty bunched this weekend with four guys – Ayoze Perez (25), Odion Ighalo (34), Dusan Tadic (19), and Riyad Mahrez (32.5) accounting for 110.5 of my 131.5 so far. I got a combined 3.25 from Boaz Myhill, Craig Dawson, Victor Moses and Wes Hoolahan and solid but not great stuff from Bellerin and Shaqiri. With Jordan Amavi who could be benched again it certainly wasn’t a balanced week but hopefully things will revert in time for next week and I’ll have dodged a bullet.
I mentioned last Monday that the Togga Writers League is just about always my favorite reading of the week. Just about everything broke nicely for me in this league and I’ve been cruising since losing my first match of the season. The trend continued as Jamie Vardy (21), Mesut Ozil (30), Marc Albrighton (29), and Nacho Monreal (21) were over 20 while Petr Cech, Yann M’Vila and Yohan Cabaye were all in double figures with Hector Bellerin, Chris Smalling, and Cheikhou Kouyate just a shade off. Really, Craig Dawson and his 0.75 was the only disappointment.
More good stuff in Perfect XI and PremierLeague.com as well. I’m absolutely giddy with my performance in PL.com. The Yahoo format spoiled my to the notion that transfers should be unlimited so I generally get frustrated with the PL.com format where transfers are so limited but it has worked out nicely this season and good results have led to more attention on my part. I’m in the top 5000 overall and in the top 200 among US participants heading into Monday’s Spurs match where I still have Eriksen to play. I put my trust in Leicester City and Dimitri Payet early and it has paid off big.
Players I’m looking at acquiring: There aren’t may big surprises at this point in the season but with managerial changes popping up, there is at least some hope that some players will get opportunities that they weren’t earlier in the season. The most interesting this weekend was Patrick Van Aanholt who is listed as a defender but who was playing higher up the pitch in midfield. Things didn’t go well for the Black Cats but Van Aanholt was in the middle of what attacking they did. The experiment could be blown up next week after they conceded six goals but it’s worth monitoring because he’s a good attacking player. It would be even better if it looked like there might be any chance Sunderland could get another clean sheet before they play Newcastle again in the second half of the season.
Players I’m thinking about ditching: I don’t technically have him in any of my leagues but Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s stock certainly isn’t looking great right now. He looked like he was going to get his chance to shine but it looks like Ramsey will be back by the time the Ox is ready to go again and Joel Campbell already has as many goals this season in the Premier League as Aaron Ramsey did from that spot.
Random Closing Thoughts
My Second Club – Let’s hear it for the Foxes continuing to win and entertain in equal measure even after I declared them my second team of the season last Monday. That announcement acted as enough of a curse last season that I rescinded it and they only barely pulled out of the tailspin in time to stay up. Thank goodness that they did because they’ve been a blast, Mahrez, Vardy and Albrighton have powered excellent fantasy results with my only regret being that I only have each of them in one league. Here’s to the third place Foxes, I hope they’ve clipped the table out of the paper so they have it for their scrapbook.
This Week’s Good Points: There was a lot of fun this weekend but, honestly, there wasn’t a single result that could be considered an upset so no good or bad points will be handed out.
The Good Points Table: West Ham United 9; Everton 6; Norwich City 5; Swansea City 4; Watford 4; Crystal Palace 3; Bournemouth 3; Tottenham 3; Manchester City 2; Newcastle 2; Stoke City 1; Sunderland 1;
This Week’s Bad Points: See above, nothing new here.
The Bad Points Table: Chelsea 13; Manchester City 6; Manchester United 5; West Ham 5; Liverpool 4; Arsenal 3; Southampton 3; Stoke City 3; Sunderland 3; Swansea 2; Tottenham 2; Chelsea 2; Everton 2
My Favorite Things – Odion Ighalo, Gerard Deulofeu, Aruna Kone and Steven Davis having big days in honor of overlooked players everywhere…Riyad Mahrez, Marc Albrighton and Jamie Vardy continuing the fantasy gold under Claudio Ranieri…soccer/fantasy crush Ayoze Perez playing very well despite Newcastle not scoring…Arsenal’s second half against Swansea…next man up on the right of the Arsenal attack, Joel Campbell, getting his first goal for the Gunners four years after coming to the club…Philippe Coutinho from distance…Kevin De Bruyne from anywhere.
My Least Favorite Things – Watching Manchester United try to attack right now…Watching Chelsea try to defend right now…Watching Arsenal in the first half against Swansea…West Ham in matches they should win…watching Bournemouth flail with inadequate talent…Norwich trying to close out a shocking 1-1 draw at the Etihad…Aleksandar Kolarov from the spot after insisting he be the one to take it over Yaya Toure…the feeling in the pit of my stomach when Olivier Giroud went down with what looked like it could have been a nasty knee injury at the Liberty Stadium (he turned out to be fine but all Arsenal supporters have seen that movie before and have had just about enough of it).
What did we find out? Arsenal and Manchester City look primed for a great battle for the title. Manchester United appear to be a bit fraudulent as “title contenders”. People will continue to overestimate Chelsea and their chances of recovering because they can’t separate the Chelsea and Mourinho brands and what they’ve done over the past decade or so from what’s actually happening on the pitch this season. It looks like there is going to be a five team relegation “race” between Norwich, Bournemouth, Sunderland, Aston Villa and Newcastle with none of them looking likely to claim any significant advantage anytime soon. Watford will have to work hard not to stay up from where they are right now. The race for the fourth Champions League spot is going to be one of the most fun things we’ve witnessed in the Premier League in years. Chelsea appear to be nowhere near rebounding which will leave Liverpool, West Ham, Spurs, and Leicester City with strong claims on fourth with Everton, Southampton and Crystal Palace at least in the conversation for now too.
What’s Next? We have a lot of interesting matches as the Premier League gets one more weekend before the next international break hits. The weekend kicks off with a massive relegation six-pointer between Bournemouth and Newcastle. Leicester City host Watford in what should prove a tantalizing contrast in styles between two teams in strong form. Manchester United host West Brom in a match-up that screams nil-nil draw based on current form which almost guarantees that it won’t be. West Ham host Everton in a match that will be big in the battle for fourth. All of that happens on Saturday. Sunday brings us the North London Derby as the marquee match-up before we lose the Premier League for two weeks to international football and the untold injury misery that inevitably comes with it.