Dabbundo’s European Soccer Weekend Recap: Problems at Manchester United Become Clear
Rob Newell-CameraSport/Getty Images. Pictured: Michail Antonio
One of the best European soccer weekends on the calendar is complete, as Liverpool crushed Manchester United and continued the Red Devils’ recent tailspin. Barcelona lost an El Clasico to Real Madrid 2-1, in which we learned very little about either team except another data point that suggests neither looks close to challenging for the Champions League this season.
Real Sociedad and Marseille continued excellent starts to their campaigns in Spain and France with Sunday draws against Atletico Madrid and PSG. The wide-open Serie A title race had very little decided on Sunday as Roma-Napoli and Juventus-Inter played to 0-0 and 1-1 draws, respectively.
There were very few shock results across Europe’s top five leagues except for one of the biggest matches of the weekend. Here’s what I learned this weekend:
Liverpool’s Demoliton of Man United Made Issues Clear
Five goals sent shockwaves through Old Trafford on Sunday, as Liverpool steamrolled Manchester United in the game of the weekend, 5-0. I wrote two weeks ago that we would learn a lot about Manchester United in the matches between the October and November international breaks as the fixtures became increasingly difficult.
The Red Devils lost 4-2 to Leicester City and were exposed defensively in transition. They managed a 3-2 comeback win against Atalanta to patch up the glaring holes in both the midfield and defense and change the narrative heading into Sunday, but the performance was still bad.
United has had success in the past playing very defensively and trying to produce results on the counter against fellow top teams, but they failed miserably on Sunday against Liverpool from the opening minutes.
The problems have been hidden in the tape and the underlying metrics for more than a year now, but fortunate results and great individual talent kept Solskjaer in his job.
Now, the results are starting to match the performances, and the performances are getting worse. Liverpool didn’t even play its best game. The Reds’ midfield without Fabinho still looks very vulnerable defensively, and the Reds will concede more goals going forward. Yet Liverpool still picked apart Fred and Scott McTominay with ease in the midfield.
Two of Manchester United's greatest defeats in their history at Old Trafford have been under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's tenure.
— ManUtd Analytics (@Utd_Analytics) October 25, 2021
United was easily overloaded time and time again on the wings and in midfield. There was too much space between the midfield and defense once Liverpool easily passed through United and there’s no way around saying this: Christiano Ronaldo has made United much, much worse at ball winning, pressing and defending. Ronaldo, 36, has the lowest pressure rate of any player in the PL, and it’s leaving a huge hole in United’s press.
Leicester, Atalanta and Liverpool have exposed this and upcoming games with Manchester City, Chelsea and Spurs aren’t going to go much better if something doesn’t change.
Only four teams have conceded more xG against than Manchester United in the Premier League. The attacking talent remains, and we’ll see if the market catches up while the Red Devils are still getting elite goal production from Ronaldo, but they can’t defend any decent team with a spine of Fred, McTominay, Ronaldo and Fernandes in the center of the pitch.
An early season easy run of fixtures greatly altered the perception of Manchester United in the advanced stats like xG difference and box entries. As they continue to play better attacks in the Premier League, they’ll keep leaking goals until Solskjaer is either replaced or makes significant changes to the starting XI.
Ronaldo needs a pressing and defensive system catered around his physical limitations, and it’s not clear United has even identified the problem. Next up for the Red Devils is Tottenham, who has its own issues with ball progression and chance creation. A movable object meets a stoppable force next Sunday in North London.
Serie A Goals Going to Dry Up, But Scoring Has Been Great
Serie A has produced 280 total goals from 250 expected goals across league play this season. That’s a 12% overperformance over expected across 20 teams and 90 league matches. Anything within 5-10% can be expected and seen as normal variance, but over 10%, it becomes highly unlikely that anything close to that level of overperformance can be maintained.
This is especially true when dealing with an entire league and not just a single player or team. As the numbers get bigger, we expect to look closer and closer to the mean expected goals.
Historically, a player, a team or even a league can run well ahead of its expected numbers in the short term. Last season, for example, the entire Premier League was finishing chances at 24% over expected in the first five matchweeks of the season to begin 2020-21.
The finishing regressed hard with a huge run of unders and took until almost Christmas for the market to adjust to the lower shot and chance creation numbers combined with the finishing regression.
The expected goals at this point in Serie A last season were about 23 goals higher, with 281 total goals scored through 273 expected goals. Chance creation is actually marginally down through nine matches in Italy, yet goals have remained flat.
The league has undergone an offensive transformation in recent seasons, but the finishing run will not be sustained forever. Games involving Lazio, Bologna, Fiorentina and Genoa, to name a few, have consistently produced way more goals than the xG numbers have suggested, and this will not continue in the long run.
I’ll be looking to find some good spots to play Serie A unders in the coming weeks and months.
West Ham Playing Like Legitimate Top 4 Contender
Manager David Moyes has done a better job at West Ham since the COVID-19 lockdown than perhaps any manager in the PL over the same time span. The Hammers were staring at potential relegation when the league stopped in March 2020. A return from the COVID pause saw the Hammers play like a solid midtable team in the nine-game restart and survive relegation.
Since then, West Ham finished last season in sixth place with the eighth best expected goal difference. They were a bit fortunate with their xG overperformance thanks to a red-hot finishing run from Jesse Lingard in the second half of the season, but few teams were better on counters and set pieces than the Hammers.
The question I had was whether West Ham could maintain this level of play if teams were to change their approach and force the Hammers to break them down with the ball more often. More teams would show respect to West Ham after a sixth place finish, and the onus would be on WHU to create their own attack through ball progression and build-up play against teams that would force WHU to have the ball.
West Ham is up from 16th to 10th in possession percentage this season. The Hammers were 16th in the PL last year in progressive passes. This year, they’re fifth, ahead of Chelsea and Leicester. They’ve improved from 14th to fourth in passes into the penalty area.
All of those statistics show that the Hammers are playing more like a top tier team this season. West Ham is pressing marginally more, is improved in ball recoveries, and is passing and possessing the ball much better than last year. The addition of Kurt Zouma in defense has also helped them improve from ninth in non-penalty xGA per 90 to fifth.
There are a few confounding variables for the Hammers, who have not yet played Chelsea, Liverpool or Manchester City this season. That’s probably going to hurt their possession and xG numbers. But they also haven’t played Norwich City, Burnley or Watford yet, so there’s signs pointing in both directions in terms of schedule strength adjustments.
West Ham has Aston Villa next, and my projections show the Hammers as very undervalued. I grabbed their draw no bet line at -120 and like it down to -140. Their dominance in the Europa League group stage along with a more repeatable way of possessing and passing their way to good chance creation makes them a better team this season.