At the end of the 2018/19 season, Manchester United have reached their lowest ebb since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, agreed?
The Red Devils have been on a general decline since the iconic Scot left, but there have been ups and downs. Or maybe, there’s just been varying depths of despair.
Trophies have been won and huge money spent on world-renowned figures. Yet, it’s been coupled with a betrayal of their traditional, swashbuckling DNA, a worrying lack of consistency and a crippling loss of identity.
Here we take both a statistical and analytical look at United over the last six seasons and rate them from best to worst:
1 – 2016/17
League finish – 6th
Points – 69
Goals – 54
Conceded – 29
Top scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic – 28
The beginning of the Jose Mourinho era. Many United fans craved the feisty, antagonistic Portuguese. Despite being seen as doing a deal with the devil, it was deemed the only plausible move for a creaking club.
Statement signings were made with big money spent on big names Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Zlatan Ibrahimovic arriving on a free.
As with all Mourinho sides the defence was suitably stoic as Eric Bailly impressed in his debut campaign – United shipped just 29 league goals, only Tottenham let in fewer.
But it was in attack they struggled as United’s 54 goals was a mammoth 23 fewer than the top six’s next lowest scorers (Arsenal, 77).
United finished outside the top four for the second successive year but that disappointment was parlayed by Mourinho leading the club to a treble.
United beat Ajax 2-0 to win the Europa League – the first time in the club’s history they’d lifted the trophy or previous equivalent, and becoming just the fifth team to win all three main European main club trophies in the process – as well as League Cup and Community Shield.
2 – 2017/18
League finish – 2nd
Points – 81
Goals – 68
Conceded – 28
Top scorer Romelu Lukaku – 27
Mourinho had delivered the title during his second season at every other club. It was not to be the case in Manchester though as their neighbours from the blue half of town strutted their stuff and sauntered to the title.
United finished second with 81 points – both highs in the wake of Ferguson’s departure. However, the 19-point chasm to Manchester City was also a record gap separating champions and runners-up in the Premier League era.
All-time record scorer Wayne Rooney was gone after 13 seasons. Also disappearing was silverware as despite a hat-trick of trophies in his first season, United finished empty-handed.
Woeful League Cup and Champions League exits to Bristol City and Sevilla respectively, piled the pressure on Mourinho, who was rapidly running out of support in the stands due to his negative style of play.
3 – 2015/16
League finish – 5th
Points – 66
Goals – 49
Conceded – 35
Top scorer Anthony Martial – 17
Louis van Gaal signed off with an FA Cup triumph – the Red Devils’ 12th (second only behind Arsenal) and first in 12 years – as Crystal Palace were beaten 2-1 in extra-time.
But it didn’t save the veteran Dutchman who was believed to have been sacked hours after the final whistle at Wembley.
United dropped out of the top four once again – coming fifth after a 3-2 defeat at West Ham in the penultimate game of the season contributed to them finishing tied on 66 points with rising force City.
They posted a joint league best defensive record, shipping just 35 goals alongside third-placed Spurs. But they notched just 49 goals at the other end – five fewer than the next lowest under Mourinho the following term and United’s lowest league tally in 26 years.
A meek Champions League group stage exit was compounded by defeat to arch rivals Liverpool in the Europa League’s last 16.
They beat every team above them in the league at some point – with the exception of champions Leicester City (yes, Leicester) – and did the league double over Liverpool but too often dropped points against teams in the bottom half.
4 – 2014/15
League finish – 4th
Points – 70
Goals – 62
Conceded – 37
Top scorer Wayne Rooney – 14
United learned their lesson, hadn’t they? To replace ‘Dithering Dave’ the Old Trafford hierarchy went for the tried and tested method. Legendary Dutch coach Van Gaal was unveiled and after the debacle of overpaying for Marouane Fellaini, winds of change swept in as Van Gaal struck the right chord, splashing out on Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria, Victor Valdes and negotiating a loan deal for Radamel Falcao.
The problem? Van Gaal is a legend but also a dinosaur. His “philosophy” was seemingly to just pass sideways and keep possession. United’s football was turgid.
Di Maria scored only four goals in 32 appearances following his £59.7m arrival and was gone the following summer after being shaken up following a burglary at his home. Falcao looked a shadow of his former self and bagged just four goals in 29 games.
United climbed back into the top four and got a seat back at the Champions League table but failed to contest any trophy – the only time no silverware was lifted or at least a final reached in the first five years post Sir Alex.
Rooney top-scored with 14 – the fewest goals scored by United’s leading man in a season since Joe Jordan’s 13 in 1979/80.
5 – 2013/14
League finish – 7th
Points – 64
Goals – 64
Conceded – 43
Top scorer Wayne Rooney – 19
A monumentally tragic term followed a swashbuckling – if cathartic – final season in charge for Sir Alex. Robin van Persie’s goals carried United to a 20th title the previous year.
Fergie anointed David Moyes his successor and it all looked good after a shimmering 4-1 thrashing of Swansea on the opening day. But it all went drastically downhill from there.
Embarrassing lows were reached as West Brom won at Old Trafford for the first time since 1978 and Newcastle for the first time in 41 years.
United were eliminated from the FA Cup at the first hurdle with a loss to Swansea and limped out of the League Cup on penalties at Sunderland.
Moyes fared fairly well in Europe, a stirring fightback against Olympiacos in the round of 16 saw them erase a 2-0 first leg loss to progress 3-2.
But ultimately Moyes failed to see out the season as he was sacked with a few games to go. United finished 7th, their lowest position in the Premier League era and worst finish since 1989/90, coincidentally the last time they also failed to secure European action the following season.
6 – 2018/19
League finish – 6th
Points – 66
Goals – 65
Conceded – 54
Top scorer Paul Pogba – 16
And so we reach United’s nadir – at least in terms of mood at the end of a season. It began in farcical circumstances when miserable Mourinho – irked by a boardroom refusal to back him in the transfer market – criticised the young players he himself took on the pre-season tour.
He seemed to write the season off before it began in America and it only got worse. They were eliminated from the League Cup by his former charge Frank Lampard – wetting his managerial beak at Championship Derby.
Mourinho was jettisoned in December after a galling 3-1 defeat at Anfield. Iconic former player Ole Gunnar Solskajer came in and instantly lifted the mood, injecting much-needed verve and energy into the players – overseeing a mesmeric 14 wins in his first 17 games, and just one defeat. The highlight was a classic United comeback from the death Champions League triumph over Paris Saint-Germain – but it was all a facade.
United won just two of their remaining 12 as they finished outside the top four for the fourth time in six seasons, were tossed out of the Champions League by Barcelona and exited the FA Cup at Wolves.
It is United’s first consecutive trophyless season in 30 years and there is a stark realisation that the club is probably in deeper trouble now more than at any other period post Fergie.
Manchester United’s Premier League campaign was an exhibition of dysfunction.
It was one that cost manager Jose Mourinho his job in December, plus the club their spot in the Champions League when they descended from runners-up in 2017/18 to a dispiriting sixth.
But why exactly did the Red Devils slip so much in 2018/19? Here’s a post-mortem into three key causes, using statistics from WhoScored.com, understat.com and PremierLeague.com (unless otherwise stated):
MORE MONEY, SAME PROBLEMS
Mourinho was mocked in August for stating “It is difficult to believe that we finished second” and “last season was one of my biggest achievements in the game”.
This ridicule would soon make way to reality as United endured their worst start in 28 years, prior to the Portuguese’s rancorous exit.
His tactical and motivational faults are noteworthy. But so too is the ruinous impact that a lack of funding from the board had.
An estimated spend of £67.5 million throughout 2018/19 on Shakhtar Donetsk midfielder Fred, Porto prospect Diogo Dalot and Stoke City’s back-up goalkeeper Lee Grant represented 11.7 per cent of their £578.5m revenue contained in the 2017/18 Deloitte Football Money League. Within the top 10 of this list, only Bayern Munich (3.1 per cent) and Tottenham Hotspur (0 per cent) were more miserly.
The comparison to Liverpool is stark. They, ambitiously, went from fourth to second when lavishing £160.8m on the likes of Roma No1 Alisson and RB Leipzig midfielder Naby Keita, with this figure representing 36 per cent of revenue.
United’s invisible senior recruits, also, averaged just 11 Premier League run-outs. This was the least inside the top six – excluding non-spending Spurs – and still considerably less than Chelsea’s 19.8, even though two of Chelsea’s six inductees throughout the campaign were reserve shot-stopper Robert Green plus United States winger Christian Pulisic who was loaned straight back to Borussia Dortmund in January.
Oh, for a director of football…
My first season here, although it has not been the season that this club deserves I’m thankful for the way that you have taken me in at @ManUtd ! We must give you more in the future and better than this season has shown.#MUFC pic.twitter.com/gk07PIRD60— Diogo Dalot (@DalotDiogo) May 13, 2019
NO CASE FOR THE DEFENCE
Whether under Mourinho or – now permanent – successor Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, United’s defending has been laughably bad.
A shameful concession of 54 goals in 38 top-flight matches was their highest return in 40 years. Their ongoing run of 15 matches, in all competitions, without a clean sheet has not been witnessed since 1970.
Such a precipitous decline should be a surprise after they let in just 28 Premier League goals in 2017/18 – only runaway champions Manchester City were better.
Discerning viewers and Mourinho, however, foretold impending disaster.
United’s xGA (expected goals against) was +15.5 in 2017/18, meaning they should have let in 44 goals. Only seventh-placed Burnley (+13.2) also got into double figures in that edition.
A smaller discrepancy of -1.7 (52.3 xGA/54 goals actually conceded) was notched in 2018/19.
Contrasting form for Spain goalkeeper David de Gea is a major cause. Rare fallibility saw him make four errors leading to goals last season in the Premier League.
This was double the two recorded in his trying debut campaign of 2011/12 and four more than a flawless 2018/19.
The 28-year-old can, legitimately, point to a lack of protection that necessitated a career-high 122 saves. This was the fourth most in 2018/19.
In 2016/17, he produced only 74.
Blame can be attached, of course, to outfield players. Champions Manchester City averaged, per top-flight game, 64-per-cent possession and 9.5 interceptions, while lethargic United had much less of the ball (53.3 per cent) and still made fewer interceptions (9.3).
Contract renewals for calamity centre-backs Phil Jones and Chris Smalling make them easy targets. But the defensive rot has set in far deeper than a suspect rearguard.
2 - Manchester United have only kept two home clean sheets in the Premier League this season, their fewest at Old Trafford in a top-flight campaign since 1962-63. Leaky.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) May 12, 2019
United were the fourth-highest goal scorers in 2018/19, meaning you’d expect this area of the park to provide some of their smallest worries.
This would be a generous viewing, however, of the numbers.
Their tally of 65 goals in 38 matches was 30 less than City and 24 fewer than Liverpool.
Their xG (expected goals) stood at 68.6, creating a negative differential of +3.6. This was comfortably the worst from the Premier League’s top six, with only third-placed Chelsea’s +1 comparable.
United and fifth-placed Arsenal were the only clubs with two players in the Premier League’s top-10 for big chances missed.
Joint Golden Boot winner Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette wasted 23 and 13. For United, Marcus Rashford spurned 16 and Romelu Lukaku 15.
But Arsenal’s duo still managed to notch 35 times, in contrast to the United strikers’ lesser 22.
A whopping 42.7 per cent of United’s Premier League attempts on goal were off target. This was comfortably the highest in the top six, with Liverpool next on 39.5 per cent.
Quality of opportunity is another issue.
From the top six, only Chelsea had fewer attempts as a percentage from inside the six-yard box than United (6 per cent/8 per cent), while United’s 51 per cent of attempts being from inside the 18-yard box was the 16th worst in the Premier League and six-per-cent inferior to City’s 57 per cent.
United’s average of 10.1 key passes per top-flight match was only good enough for the joint-fifth best with Leicester. It was also 3.5 fewer than leaders City and 1.1 less than Liverpool.
Defence and midfield are oft highlighted when debating United’s summer business. It would be remiss, however, of legendary ex-striker Solskjaer to ignore the area of the pitch he knows so well.
Tough period for us at the moment and as a United fan myself I understand how you’re feeling. We’ve shown how we can play, we need to get back to doing what we know we can do! @ManUtd— Marcus Rashford (@MarcusRashford) April 25, 2019
Wayne Rooney believes Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s coaching team need to strike fear into those Manchester United players that have shown they are happy to hide.
After enjoying a remarkable caretaker stint when replacing divisive Jose Mourinho late last year, things have gone awry in the last few months under the 1999 treble hero.
United won just two of their 10 matches following Solskjaer’s permanent appointment in March and the drop in performances have been as alarming as the results, with the 2-0 home loss to Cardiff a fitting end to the season.
There are set to be numerous personnel changes at Old Trafford this summer but the club’s all-time top scorer believes the issues run deeper than that.
A veteran of the Sir Alex Ferguson era, Rooney believes Solskjaer needs to strike the balance between fear and respect to get the best out of the group.
“It’s a tough one because to watch Manchester United struggle is always tough,” the DC United forward said.
“When Ole came in, he did a fantastic job and you could see the players were given that bit of freedom and you could see they loved it and they earned the right to win game with how they were playing.
“But then all of a sudden, I don’t know whether it’s players being linked to other teams or players down tooling… I don’t think it is that but for some reason they just didn’t perform the last seven, eight games of the season, which has cost them.”
Asked how United change it, Rooney said: “I think the players need to fear someone.
“They need to fear Ole Gunnar, they need to fear Michael Carrick – they need to respect them but fear them also.”
Rooney knows more than most what it takes to flourish at United, having scored 253 goals across 559 appearances during a medal-laden stay between 2004 and 2017.
A team-mate of manager Solskjaer and first-team coach Carrick during that time, he was also in the dressing room with a number of the current crop and believes there is not enough accountability on the field or away from it.
“The way the game has gone has changed; the society has changed,” he said on the Wayne Rooney Podcast.
“You’ve got social media. You’ve got players losing a game and then posting something on social media about their new clothing range or aftershave, whatever, they are bringing out, which I find remarkable.
“So, when fans speak up on it and say, ‘why are you posting that?’ they always have the marketing people to blame. Take responsibility. They work for you. Them marketing people work for you.
“I have people who do similar stuff for me and they would never do anything without my instructions.
“If that’s what you’re doing, you’re sitting at the top of that business, you have to take responsibility for that.
“These players almost like to find someone to hide behind, whether that’s on the social media or on the pitch and that’s what they’re doing.”
Provided by Press Association Sport