If you haven’t had a chance to watch Manchester United this season, you’re in for a bit of a surprise. Louis van Gaal has guided United to the top of the Premier League table but not with swashbuckling football, rather by playing a brand of controlled football which many have decried as boring.
Manchester United have never been known as a bulk shooting team. In all the years under Sir Alex, United led the League in shots per game maybe once or twice. And in his last season Fergie averaged just 14.7 shots per game, 7th best in the League. Fergie always prized efficiency over sheer numbers but surprisingly, since his retirement United have taken fewer and fewer shots per game each season, dropping to an all time low this season of just 11.4 per game. That’s 14th worst in the League, tied with Aston Villa.
Van Gaal is able to get away with this low total offensive output because his team is amazingly efficient. They have scored 11 goals this season (minus own goals) and 9 of them have been from Big Chances. Their Big Chance conversion rate is an astonishing 69% and they get 84% of their big chances on target. I can’t say whether that will “revert to the mean” because title winning teams often outperform standard metrics, that’s what makes them the winners, they are better than average. But I can say definitively that their conversion rates and big chance conversion rates are astonishing.
There is a hint that perhaps this is a Man U efficiency bubble. United only created three big chances in their first 4 matches. But since Liverpool, and the introduction of Anthony Martial, United have created 10 big chances in their last three matches. And while they scored 1 big chance of their first three attempts, they have scored 8 of their last 10.
What allows United to get away with such poor overall chance creation is not just the scoring efficiency but also the fact that they are the best defensive team in the League. They have conceded a League best 5 goals this season and have conceded the fewest total shots of any team, just 62. United have also conceded just 7 big chances to the opposition, and conceded 2 of those as goals, tied with Arsenal for the best record in that category.
Van Gaal’s apparent tactic is to win games by choking the life out of them and hoping that his superior talent will convert the few chances he gets and win them the game on the day. Oddly this is the exact opposite of what is happening at Arsenal at the moment.
Arsenal are the most prolific shooting team in the league, averaging 21.1 shots per game. Arsenal have also created 23 big chances this season, more than any other team in the League, and yes, that counts Man City who have created 10 big chances in their last three matches alone, but who have only created 22 big chances in 8 matches.
Arsenal’s problem, as regular readers of the blog know, is that they have been wasteful in front of goal, converting a paltry 5% of their total shots and an abyssal 22% of their big chances. Both os these conversion rates are about half what we would normally expect.
Wenger is trumpeting his team’s win over Leicester, when the Gunners cruised to a 5-2 victory, and he has good reason to do so; his team finally converted their big chances, 3/5, and Alexis even added a low percentage distance goal to the tally. It remains to be seen if this was just a sprinkling or the start of a deluge for the Gunners.
Rooney is a nemesis, scoring twice in the last two matches and 14 times in 31 overall matchups with Arsenal, stretching all the way back to his days with Everton. Rooney isn’t the main focus though. United play 42% of their offense through the left side of the pitch, mostly running things through Depay. He hasn’t been prolific in front of goal (yet) but he is a dangerously quick and powerful young man and Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin will face a stern test.
Offensively, these two teams are direct opposites — Arsenal profligate, United frugal — and unless one of these teams abandons their form of the early season, this could be a very boring match.
Drink extra coffee to stay up for this match. I don’t expect an end-to-end affair like Arsenal’s win over Leicester but rather a cagey affair with both teams looking to kill off possession and hit each other on the counter. Rather than a goal glut, this is a match that will likely turn on a single conversion.