There have already been sweeping changes at Old Trafford since Jose Mourinho replaced Louis van Gaal as manager of Manchester United. The stats gurus at WhoScored.com take a look at the difference Mourinho has made so far…
Manchester United have only played two Premier League matches this season, but you can already see that Jose Mourinho has succeeded in doing what David Moyes and Louis van Gaal failed to do in the three years before him in restoring the excitement and swagger that has been absent since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013.
“I think anyone can see there are differences in relation to the last two or three years,” Mourinho boldly told reporters after United’s 2-0 win over Southampton on Friday. Mourinho’s bullishness with the press has been synonymous with his entire managerial career and it’s one of the contributing factors that has helped transform the mentality at United over the summer.
While Moyes failed to comprehend the enormity of the job, Van Gaal was simply deluded into thinking fourth place was something that should be celebrated. Mourinho, meanwhile, hasn’t tried to dampen expectations; he’s embraced them.
United have only won away to Bournemouth and at home to Southampton, but those were fixtures that United lost last season. It’s damning on the previous regimes at United that comfortable wins over these two south coast sides have contributed to the growing air of optimism around Old Trafford, but we are already seeing clear signs of improvement.
While Mourinho was never going to completely release the shackles on United’s forwards, the transition between defence and attack has been much better. Only Aston Villa (638 passes per goal) and Swansea (443) averaged more passes per goal than United in the Premier League last season (436), whereas no team is finding the back of the net with fewer passes than Mourinho’s side this time around (194).
Of course, we’re only two games into the new season, but the initial performances are encouraging. United are already averaging nearly twice as many shots on target (6) per game than last season (3.8) despite the fact there has only been a marginal improvement in chances created (8.5 per game) compared to last season (8.2). They are also the most clinical team in front of goal (21.7% conversion rate), accentuating their statistically calculated WhoScored.com strength of ‘finishing scoring chances’.
There hasn’t just been an improvement in attack, either. No team conceded fewer goals in the Premier League last season than United (35) but their defence was rightly earmarked as an area of concern at the start of the summer. Van Gaal’s conservative and uninspiring possession-based football, coupled with an average of 55.9% possession – the second highest in the league last season – explains why they were so effective at shutting teams out, although the same couldn’t be said about their ability to defend set pieces.
Only Swansea (40%) conceded a greater proportion of their goals from dead ball situations than United (36.4%) last season, which would have played a part in Mourinho’s decision to make an imposing centre-back his first signing. A £30m signing from Villarreal, Eric Bailly joined as the only one of Mourinho’s four summer signings that was not one of WhoScored.com’s top rated players in Europe’s big five leagues last season. However, Bailly’s early season performances have been colossal and his physical approach to defending has already seen him draw comparisons to United legend Nemanja Vidic.
At either side of Bailly, the two full-backs – Antonio Valencia and Luke Shaw – have been equally impressive. Sterner tests await, but the sight of both taking advantage of the space further forward vacated by the inside movement of Juan Mata and Anthony Martial has been a hallmark of United’s opening displays. In fact, only Paul Pogba (9) has completed more dribbles than Valencia and Shaw (both 3) for United and their use of the flanks has already become a statistically calculated strength for the team.
Last season the average player position of United’s full-backs in a back four under Van Gaal was scarcely positioned over the halfway line, but Mourinho has already given them greater responsibility in the attacking third. Shaw’s average position against Southampton was more advanced than the likes of Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata, while Valencia’s positioning was almost level with United’s front four against Bournemouth. Even in United’s biggest wins last season, their full-backs would never wander too far ahead of the two deep-lying midfielders. It may only be a subtle change, but it’s one they are evidently benefiting from in the final third.
The most interesting aspect of United’s evolution will be in central midfield; how Mourinho uses Pogba and the deployment of Rooney. Pogba was given the license to get forward and maximise his best qualities against Southampton – finishing as the WhoScored.com man of the match (8.85 rating) – but it’s unlikely he will have that much freedom against better teams if Mourinho persists with this current 4-2-3-1 formation.
Should Mourinho revert to a three-man midfield, which would allow Pogba to flourish as a box-to-box midfielder, then that would surely come at the cost of Rooney’s place in the team, having already made it clear the United captain has no future in midfield.
For all the positives that Mourinho has taken from United’s opening two matches he is aware there is still much more to come. “In the moment of our process, it is even more important to show evolution in our game. And I think we are showing that although I think anyone can say we are not playing superb yet, but hopefully that will come,” Mourinho finished.
The biggest test of how far United have come under Mourinho will be on display in the first Manchester Derby after the international break. However, the initial signs have been positive and if they can reach the heights Mourinho expects then there is no doubting that they will be challenging for the title come May.