Under Jose Mourinho, Manchester United was a team unmotivated to play classic “Mourinho tactics.” His approach mainly consisted of sitting deep, keeping a tight formation, and then launching fast counter attack with a big man up front to spearhead the attack. In the process, the attack would create space for onrushing midfielders. But, this season, it didn’t quite work out as planned. A poor run of form, ending with a damaging defeat at the hands of their arch rivals, Liverpool, ended Mourinho’s reign.

But where did it go wrong?

Domestically, Manchester United averaged 1.5 points per game under Mourinho, compared to a maximum of 2.4 per game under Sir Alex Ferguson. But, ironically, for a such a defensive manager, its at the back where the problems lay. In his 17 games, United had shipped a massive 29 goals. They also scored only 29.

Looking at the XG stats, Manchester United registered 28.22 XG, with 26.53 XG Against. Therefore, they scored roughly one goal more than expected and let in 2.47 more than expected, mainly due to the fact that De Gea wasn’t at his world class best.

We shouldn’t forget that at the beginning of the season, Manchester United were one of the favourites to challenge Manchester City. Their neighbours, in comparison, registered 44.98XG with only 13 XG Against.

Pogba stats Under Mourinho

One of the players who received the most criticism was Paul Pogba. Bought for roughly £90 million the season before, a lot was expected of the flamboyant Frenchman, but his output for this portion of the season was meagre. He returned with only 3 goals against an expected 6.04, and only 1.45 expected assists. This demonstrates either how woefully out of form he was, how badly he was managed, or how unmotivated he was. Whichever way you want to look at it, he was capable of more.

Player Position Apps Mins Goals Assists Shots/90 Key passes/90 xG xA xG/90 xA/90
Paul Pogba Midfielder 14 1137 3 3 3.17 1.42 6.04 1.45 .48 0.12

A quick look at his performance in the 3-0 loss against Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford shows just how much Pogba struggled under Mourinho. Unable to get forward and express himself, most of his passes are from a relatively deeper position, nullifying his natural skills. Pogba created 1 chance and had no take ons.

Under Solskjaer

After the sacking of Mourinho, United went back to basics, hiring fan-favourite, Ole Gunner Solskjaer. Solskjaer quickly reinstalled a brand of football that he played under Ferguson. Lightening fast counters, utilising the width of the pitch, and making attack the best form of defence made return to Old Trafford.

In the 13 league games since the new manager’s appointment, United also registered 29 goals but have only let in 11 – the same number as title hopefuls Liverpool and Manchester City. They have tallied 32 points at a rate of 2.5 points per game (note Fergie’s peak above). Had the league begun on 16th December when Mourinho was sacked, they would be top.

A look at the XG stats show that United are creating at the same rate, 28.01 XG, but have conceded only 15.2, with a turn around in De Gea’s form a major reason for the positive delta against the 11 actual goals conceded. However, comparing United’s XG against stats against Liverpool and City’s shows that there is still room for improvement. The two North West rivals have conceded only 9.43 and 8.68 XG each respectively.

Pogba Stats under Solskaer

Paul Pogba under Ole Gunner Solskaer is unrecognisable. Typically, with the protection of Nemanja Matić and Ander Herrera behind him, Pogba has been given a licence to go forward and do what he does best – shoot, dribble, and make incisive passes to the front men. Since Solskjaer has been placed in charge, Pogba has scored 8 goals against an expected 7.32 and assisted 6 times, all in one less appearance.

Player Position Apps Mins Goals Assists Shots/90 Key passes/90 xG xA xG/90 xA/90
Paul Pogba Midfielder 3 1156 8 6 3.66 1.71 7.32 2.61 .57 .20

A look at Pogba’s performance against Spurs away, where United won 1-0, shows just how far he has come. As we can see below, Pogba’s starting position appears to be higher up the pitch, where he is most effective. He completed 5 take ons and creates 3 chances.

Looking Forward

With Ole at the helm, adopting the Fergie way, many expected more attacking football with more goals. While attacking players such as Pogba have been transformed, it’s at the back where the difference has been seen. So much so that it’s resulted in Championship winning form since he took over. This has seen United claw back 11 points on their top 4 rivals when all seemed lost with regards to a Champions League spot.

As with his attacking players, Solskjaer has injected a sense of confidence among United’s back four who were hapless under Mourinho. In particular, Victor Lindelhof’s performances have improved markedly. As per Sam Piger, a sports writer with Forbes,

The biggest success story, however, has been the form of Lindelof, who has been transformed from a nervous performer, who looked out of his depth earlier in the season against both Brighton and Tottenham in to a calm and reassuring presence at the heart of the defense.

Lindelof has brought his clearances to a respectable 4.2 per game, a tenth short of Chris Smalling, United’s best defender in terms of clearances.

Tactical changes may also have played a role in shoring up United’s defence. As mentioned earlier, Solksjaer has brought back elements of Ferguson’s style of play where a potent attack serves as the best defence. With this in mind, he favors an initial attacking 4-2-3-1 when going forward, relying on short, crisp passes instead of mid- to long balls. Should they lose possession, United play more proactively than under Mourinho. As a team, they counter-press their opponents into making an error. As per David Selini from Total Football Analysis,

The wingers often angle their pressing to force the full-back inwards while the striker occupies the ball-near center-back. The aim is to force a risky pass centrally.

At the same time, United shift to a compact 4-4-2. When the counter-press breaks down, Solskjaer’s team often change shape again, this time 4-1-4-1 or an occasional deep 4-4-1-1.

There are signs that United’s new manager bounce may have simply lasted longer than usual but have now been re-introduced to gravity. Solskaer’s side have suffered two losses on the bounce, domestically against Arsenal and in the FA Cup against Wolverhampton. They have only won three matches in their last six.

While a mini injury crisis certainly provides some challenges, it’s the recent dip in Paul Pogba’s form that must be most worrying. Ever since United’s Champions League loss to Paris Saint Germaine at home where Pogba was at his abject worst, the Frenchman’s form as been erratic. With the sole exception of his performance in United’s Champions League away win against PSG on March 3, he has arguably returned to Mourinho-era form. During his last ten games, Pogba had 5.54 xG and 1.9 xA. When narrowed to his past five matches, his numbers decrease.

A handful of games is too smaller sample to see if a trend is appearing but they need to get back on track if the fairy tail is to continue. As it stands, United have scored 40 actual goals from 32.5 XG in all comps, and conceded 17 from 24.5 expected goals against. Some would say that a dip was always coming, and the last games of the season will show us their true level.

WORDS: Anish Uppal (@anishuppal79); addition reporting by Marc Landas

SOURCES: SoccerStats, StatsZone, Forbes, Total Football Analysis, Understat

IMAGE SOURCE: Creative Commons

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