In recent years, Manchester United have done more than any other club to dissuade us of the notion that statistics tell the whole story, writes Stephen Tudor.
Instead, as nearly a decade of post-Ferguson travails has strongly demonstrated, we should always trust our eyes to fill in the blanks; always trust our gut to tell us when the cold, hard numbers don’t tally up to reality. In Jose Mourinho’s first season at Old Trafford, United went two-thirds of the campaign undefeated, their 25 consecutive wins and draws amounting to the ninth longest unbeaten run since the Premier League began. Were the Reds especially impressive during this period? They were anything but, often requiring a late strike to rescue the points against supposedly inferior fare as Mourinho’s negative approach sucked the very marrow out of games. Yet as late as spring in that season it could have been statistically possible to mount a case that United under Mourinho were going places whereas Manchester City under Pep Guardiola were not.
Last season, the Reds finished second in the league, five points clear of reigning champions Liverpool and out-scoring them too, Mo Salah and all. The stats told us that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was doing a terrific job and it would be unfair to disregard that standpoint completely. But time and again, United needed dramatic comebacks to keep them on track. Time and again they flattered to deceive. This was an improved Manchester United for sure but were they ‘runner up’ good? The league table said yes. Our eyes said absolutely not, muddled and inconsistent as they were, and so often reliant on individual moments.
Presently, United are statistically in a good run of form losing only once in their last 15 league games, 13 of those fixtures under the tenure of Ralf Rangnick. Their shot count in many of these games are off the charts. Does this suggest the German coach has masterminded a transformation, installing a cohesive methodology into what was frankly an unholy mess of a team for the first third of 2021/22? Does their shot count intimate that he has tapped into the club’s traditional attacking values and sometime soon – as the cliché goes, from those who treat data as the gospel truth – someone is going to get a real spanking?
Again, our eyes tell us a different story for United have been all things to all men of late, decent and fluid at times but abysmal and short of ideas for entire halves. The output of Cristiano Ronaldo has dropped alarmingly and this matters because they are still a team that depends on individuality and at 37 and incapable of executing a high press, moments of magic is all he has to offer. At the back meanwhile, goals are being conceded cheaply.
🚨 Ralf Rangnick has major doubts about the prospect of Cristiano Ronaldo leading the line for Manchester United next season.
(Source: MEN) pic.twitter.com/8bwTi2rdMj
— Transfer News Live (@DeadlineDayLive) February 28, 2022
As for that fabled shot count, against Burnley, Southampton, Watford and Middlesbrough – the latter in the cup – United racked up a staggering 93 attempts on goal. They drew each game in regulation time, converting just three times. That’s not an unsustainable stat-glitch. That is negligence. That’s a problem. City are +133 to win to nil.
Finishing off such a small fraction of your chances inevitably leads to goalless draws at home to Watford, a side who had previously kept just two clean sheets all term and becomes an even more heightened stumbling block going into a derby against a City back-line that is parsimony personified. That Spurs anomaly aside, City have managed to restrict opponents to a shade over two shots on target per game in their last 10 contests. To beat them requires sharp shooting and at this point it’s worth noting that Edinson Cavani – United’s only sharp-shooter – is out.
At the other end, we know too well of City’s attributes, of their unerring ability to template any match to their own liking; to take possession of possession and pass and probe until a gap is found and then one of their plethora of forward-less forwards scores. Riyad Mahrez has notched ten in ten. Raheem Sterling is back on it and has six direct goal involvements in six. Bernardo Silva enjoys this fixture a great deal, scoring three in his last six derbies.
Sterling is +145 to score anytime this Sunday.
In this instance therefore, the stats and our learned interpretation of what we’ve witnessed from both sides to this point marry up, and if City have put that Tottenham defeat to bed and play as they can, and if United are United, then this could be a thoroughly one-sided affair.
But wait, before you back a comprehensive home win there is another factor to consider, one that involves a third party. Because with six wins on the bounce Liverpool have clawed themselves back into title contention and that will likely have a meaningful impact on how this Sunday’s clash at the Etihad plays out. For City, what matters here is not the gaining of local bragging rights or to lord their superiority over neighbours who used to lord over them. The three points are everything.
This necessity will lead to a distinct change of approach, as evidenced on the last occasion City and Liverpool were locked in a title tussle in 2018/19 when the Blues became a very different animal on the final straight. For much of that campaign, Guardiola’s creation was expansive and extravagant, accruing 2.7 goals per game to the tail-end of February. Only then they switched tack. They dug in. Between this stage of the season and May, City’s goal average dropped to 1.9 with five of their concluding commitments ending 1-0.
Last week at Goodison, the reigning champions did what was needed, prioritizing fortitude over flair. They’ve started a week early this time. A very possible outcome this weekend is that Manchester City boast most of the possession but take scant risks, ultimately winning by a slender margin. We don’t need stats to tell us this. Under 2.5 goals is a tempting +130 and a sensible addition to any Bet Builder.