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xGunners: What is wrong at Old Trafford

Nemanja Matic is getting old and can’t protect a mediocre group of center backs, can Arsenal exploit this?

Manchester United v Crystal Palace - Premier League Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Arsenal and Manchester United share a similarity this season. Both teams have not backed up their “Big 6” reputation with dominating performances this season. Arsenal have played mediocre at times but have come out on the right side of the results but look to be trending in a positive direction. Manchester United on the other hand have been in a downward trend with their numbers after a hot start last season and they have started to see the results match the performances after beating the expectations for so long last year.

Anyway you slice it, the above is a damning indictment of the job that Jose Mourinho has done this season. There are certainly issues with the way that the Manchester United squad has been built but with some €466 million spent (according to TransferMarkt) since Mourinho took over as manager playing mid-table level football is a disaster.

So far this season, Manchester United have only beat their opponents by a 1.0+ xG margin 2 times this season, Arsenal have done it 4 times, Tottenham have done it 6 times, Chelsea have done it 8 times, Liverpool have done it 8 times and Manchester City have done it a staggering 12 times this season. xG isn’t the be all end all statistic but the ability to create more good chances while limiting your opponent is a recipe for success, with teams that have done that winning 80% of their matches this season collecting an average of 2.5 points per match.

The biggest issue for United has been at the back. Mourinho wanted to bring in another center back this summer but didn’t get his way, and it seems with his team selection every week he has sent a message of his displeasure with his options. This season he has used seven different players at center back with results that match the lack of confidence in each player.

In 2016-17 Manchester United allowed 9.5 shots per match as they allowed the second fewest goals in the league. In 2017-18 they got a bit worse but were covered by David DeGea’s amazing shot stopping allowing 11.5 shots per match as they again conceded the second fewest goals in the league. This season they are allowing the 14.6 shots per match which is 4th most and have allowed the 6th most goals this season.

While the center backs haven’t been great, I think that the biggest issue for the defense has been the cover that they have received (or more accurately not received) from midfield.

Paul Pogba can really only be said to be the only midfielder who has played anywhere near expectations this season. The biggest summer transfer Fred has been a disappointment, after starting the opening three matches has been pushed to the fringes of the squad and has played just 487 minutes. Marouane Fellaini has been again called upon more often then most would like to start matches in central midfield instead of being a sub option to change matches. Yet, the biggest disappointment of the season has been the decline of Nemanja Matic as a defensive midfielder.

Here are a quick rundown of Matic’s rankings among Premier League midfielders with at least 7 appearances this season: tackles 36 of 46 (15), dribbled past 23 of 46 (10), interceptions 31 of 46 (9), fouls 42 of 46 (7, fouling isn’t positive necessarily but it is a sign of involvement in defensive actions), dispossessed 35 of 46 (12).

For the things that you want your holding player to do, Matic has struggled with this season. With a player in decline in front of a back line that the manager has lost confidence in is a recipe for bad results and that has been the case this season. With this set up Arsenal’s attacking players are hoping to have a good evening.