Manchester United: Good or Bad?

by Unfrozen Caveman Law Writer

After Sunday’s much-more-thrilling-than-it-should-have-been 2-1 win over Luton Town, The Athletic raised an interesting question: Are Manchester United good?

I’ll do them one better. Community once posited a true head scratcher, asking during a 2014 episode whether Nicholas Cage was good or bad.

So in that spirit, Manchester United: Good or Bad?

As was the case with Cage, the answer is complicated.

Sometimes, Nicholas Cage is good or even great (Leaving Las VegasAdaptationMatchstick MenRaising Arizona, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call). Sometimes he’s bad or downright awful to the point where you wonder whether he’s engaging in some weird social experiment or he thinks he’s doing avant garde performance art (The Wicker Man, most of his post-2009 output where studios more or less just forwarded his paycheck to the IRS). Sometimes, he’s so bad that he’s good (The RockFace/OffCon Air — a lot of his 90’s action roles), and sometimes he’s bad even though he’s trying to be good (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin). Sometimes, he’s clearly just going through the motions for a movie that’s also just going through the motions (Honeymoon in Vegas, The Family Man, It Could Happen To You, The National Treasure movies).

Like Cage, this year’s Manchester United team is a bit all over the place.

On the whole, they’ve been inconsistent (like Cage’s entire career). After a terrible start, United are in their best form of the season, going unbeaten since the New Year and winning their last four league matches. They currently sit in 6th, but are only 3 points behind fifth place Tottenham Hotspur and 5 points behind fourth place Aston Villa.

On closer inspection, that run of good form looks a bit deceptive. United blew a pair of two-goal leads against Wolves before Kobbie Mainoo scored a memorable game winner in second-half stoppage time, were flattered by a 3-0 scoreline against West Ham, and needed a second late escape against Aston Villa before barely beating a Luton Town team that came into the match in 17th place.

They’re also giving up a ton of shots and ceding a ton of possession. Against Spurs (the one match they’ve failed to win in 2024, drawing 2-2 after blowing two leads), they got outshot 16-9 (6-2 on shots on target). They gave up another 16 shots against Wolves (7 were on target), 22 against West Ham (only 3 were on target), 23 against Villa (10 were on target) and 22 against Luton (only 4 were on target). They’ve been out-possessed in all but 1 of those matches, in some cases, by a lot. Spurs, for instance, had 64% possession, while Luton Town had it 59% of the time.

Neither the shot nor possession volumes are concerning, per se. Many of the shots United have faced during their winning streak have been harmless ones that Andre Onana has easily saved. According to the expected-goals figures during their winning streak, while United were slightly in the red against Villa and West Ham, the numbers were close enough that the results weren’t necessarily inconsistent with the performances on the pitch.

As for possession, United has long functioned better on the counterattack, thanks to years of practice and recruitment under Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjær. While Erik ten Hag has long preached control and ball possession, he has also said he wants his team to play well in transition. He seems to have gone all-in on the latter, as control and ball possession seem like pipe dreams at this point. Maybe he looked at his roster and realized that he doesn’t have the players he needs to exert the kind of control he wants — especially in midfield where Casemiro has become a card machine, Scott McTominay functions more as an auxiliary forward and late-match Plan B, Sofyan Amrabat is only trusted to help see out matches late in the second half, Christian Eriksen hasn’t played since the Spurs match and Mason Mount has rarely been fit. Instead, he has a bunch of players who are better suited to soaking up pressure and going on the counterattack (Marcus Rashford, for instance, looks like a world class player when he’s leading or finishing off a counter). So why not lean into that?

Or maybe United look better than they really are because they have one player enjoying a run of world class form, thereby papering over some cracks in the foundation. Much like last year when Rashford’s goal scoring carried United during its post-World Cup run of great form, the team has benefitted from Rasmus Højlund’s recent binge. On Sunday, he bagged a brace within the first 7 minutes of the match, becoming the youngest player in league history to score in six consecutive matches. To be fair, it hasn’t been all Højlund. Alejandro Garnacho and Kobbie Mainoo have established themselves as must-starts, Diogo Dalot has been excellent at right back, Raphael Varane seems to be finding his form again and McTominay has thrived as a supersub.

Or maybe they’ve just been lucky. While expected-goals/points are not the end-all, be-all, if you accept them as a more accurate measure of on-the-pitch performance then United should be 12th in the league based on expected-points, behind the likes of Everton, Chelsea, Brentford and Bournemouth. Then again, last season told a similar story. United finished third in the table, but had the 6th highest tally based on expected-points. So either the metric doesn’t really tell the whole story, or this United team is just really fortunate.

Or maybe they’re actually unlucky. Injuries are a part of the game, but this team has had a really bad run. Lisandro Martinez, an important defender and passer has missed a lot of time this season and could be out for another long stretch after sustaining a knee ligament injury against West Ham. Luke Shaw, who left the Villa match with an injury but then started against Luton before being removed at half time, could be done for the year with a hamstring injury — not a big deal, except United terminated their loan deal for Sergio Reguilon in January and let Alvaro Fernandez leave on loan. The only other left back on the roster, Tyrell Malacia, hasn’t played all year because of a long-term injury. As such, United can probably expect those shot totals to go up even more now that they’ll have to rely on defenders playing out of position.

Either way, there are plenty of questions about how good this United team really is. With big matches looming against Manchester City, Liverpool, Brighton, Newcastle and Arsenal that will probably decide the Top 4, we’ll probably learn the answer soon enough.

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