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11 - A time for reflection

It was a weekend for reflection, where football around the country joined to pay their respects to the men and women to have died in duty. With United playing their 11th league game of the season there appeared several other numerical parallel's to provoke reflection on where United are going.Prior to  Man Utd’s 3-2 victory against Aston Villa Sir Alex Ferguson had set United a target of 100 goals in the Premier League. Chicarito’s double (or hat-trick if you’re feeling generous) on Saturday brought the tally to 29 goals in 11 matches.  

The last occasion Man Utd had scored more than 29 goals after just 11 games was way back in 2000, when Fergie’s men racked up 31 goals.  It is also the first time since 2006 that United are in pole position after 11 matches. That time the reds finished the season 1st, with 19 more goals than second place Chelsea.  Both these were the only time since Premier League inception that United have been 1st after 11 games.

After 11 games

Season

Table position after 11 games

Goals for after 11 games

Goals for at the end of the season

Table position at the end of the season

2012/13

1

29

 

 

2011/12

2

28

89

2

2010/11

2

24

78

1

2009/10

3

23

86

2

2008/09

4

20

68

1

2007/08

2

19

80

1

Admittedly statistics like that are more trivia than of statistical significance, however what likely holds more relevance is every season since the beginning of the Premier league Manchester United have never finished below where they sit in the table after the 11th game.

Over the last 6 seasons, including the present, United’s attacking capabilities have increasingly started better in the league. The “goals for” column has seen an increase season on season when taking a snapshot at this same stage. This hasn’t necessarily equated to a year on year increase come the end of the season however, with a drop every other season.

At the other end we have also seen a nearly identical scenario, with for the exception of 2011/12 an increase in the goals conceded at this stage each season.

Season

Table position after 11 games

Goals conceded after 11 games

Goals conceded at the end of the season

Table position at the end of the season

2012/13

1

16

 

 

2011/12

2

12

33

2

2010/11

2

13

37

1

2009/10

3

11

28

2

2008/09

4

10

24

1

2007/08

2

4                 

22

1

Arguably the Champions League success proved the catalyst for change, possibly sooner than Fergie would have wanted or had planned for. The worry before the success was that it would lead to Ronaldo finally leaving having achieved all he could. In actual fact another year was squeezed out of him. Possibly foreseeing this Dimitar Berbatov was brought in to add extra fire power for the 2008/09 season, however this didn’t have the desired effect with United scoring less than 70 goals in the league. The catalyst for success came from a 14 match run where the team didn’t concede a goal.

With the departure of Ronaldo and Tevez at the end of the season it was slightly surprising that  United scored significantly more goals that season than the previous year. The counter argument being, after the less free flowing attack the previous season, too much emphasis was placed on Ronaldo. However with the change in team dynamics United lost their spot at the top of the table to Ancelloti’s Chelsea. This also proved the last season where the team was built on the back of a strong defence.

Compared to other seasons 2010/11 saw less dominance from the “Big 4” compared to previous seasons. It seemed to be a case that Fergie was still working out the formula for his next team, following the acknowledgement that Ronaldo wasn’t going to stay. Man Utd topped the table, 9 points ahead of Chelsea, who capitulated mid-season following the expensive purchase of Fernando Torres. There was a clear increase in the goals against column however, with away form nearly proving very costly. United may have ended the season 1st but their defensive frailties’ led to a low goal difference, bettering only the 2008/09 season in recent years.

It was a similar story last season with Neville, Van Der Sar and Scholes retiring at end of the 2010/11 there was a sudden lack of experience. This was not adequately addressed in the transfer window with 26 year old Aston Villa winger Ashley Young the most experienced transfer in. Injuries also began mounting up at the beginning of the season and with new goalkeeper De Gea acclimatising to the EPL United’s defence was again left wanting. In the end this would prove costly, City pipping United to the title on goal difference.

And so to this season. Given Manchester United have been Premier League champions for 3 out of the last 5 campaigns it seems harsh to say the success has been papering over cracks but on paper it does appear that way. With a shift away from the reliance on one player, Ronaldo, to score the goals, the whole dynamic of the team has changed. The goals are being spread more evenly, as Fergie noted this week there are 15 unique goal scorers in all competitions so far. However this has led to fewer players defending, whereas before other players could focus on their defensive duties, this sharing of the goal scoring “burden” has fallen across the shoulders of more players leading to less defensive focus. Not aided by a young goalkeeper and a changeable defence, it has left the team very exposed at the back.

These defensive dilemmas do not seem to have an easy solution currently, with any chance of continuity in defence being scuppered by injuries to defenders. There also does not seem to be a settled midfield. While rivals City often boast two world class defensive midfielders, United can only look to Fletcher or Carrick. With the former still managing his return back to football following his extended break due to ulcerative colitis, the latter cannot truly be recognised as a defensive midfielder. What Carrick does well is read the play and intercept but without a regular partner alongside him and more emphasis on attacking his work is often undone.

No one can doubt the season so far has been entertaining and most would rather 3-2 wins over 1-0 wins, but if we are to ensure that scenarios such as last year are avoided, United have to start opening up the gap in winning score lines. This could come through tighter defensive work, something that will likely come together the more De Gea plays and also the return of Nemanja Vidic in the new year. A clinicalness that has often been missing in recent years is the other factor to be addressed, the 2-1 win against Arsenal a prime example of a dominant performance not being matched by a dominant scoreline. The key to all this could be Rooney, freeing him from the midfield role he unnaturally occupies recently and who has yet to find his free scoring form of previous years. An exciting prospect, or maybe not if you’re the opposition. 

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