Watching Manchester United is more painful this season than it ever was under Louis van Gaal – probably because the team is so much better.
I know that opening statement seems counter-intuitive, so bear with me. Watching Manchester United miss out on another deserved win over Arsenal, fail to beat a Tom Heaton-inspired Burnley and draw with Stoke despite creating enough chances to win the game three times over, it is hard to explain how this team isn’t higher up the league.
Under Louis van Gaal, United were tepid, boring and thoroughly unambitious. Possession was too high a priority, goals were too few and far between and fans had switched off. There was no excitement left. Van Gaal’s United scored just 49 league goals last season; setting a new club record for the fewest goals in a Premier League season, while they failed to score at all in 23 games under the Dutchman across his two seasons in charge. This wasn’t Manchester United.
So as Manchester United limped to a fifth place finish, it just sort of stopped hurting so much. Win, lose or draw, there wasn’t the same connection with the team.
But Jose Mourinho’s arrival heralded a new era. Ibrahimovic signed, Pogba signed, United won the first three league games of the season and were top of the table. The excitement that had been lost was back. It started to feel like Manchester United again.
But after twelve matches, United have just 19 points and are sixth in the league. They trail the top four by at least six points and have scored just nine goals in six matches at Old Trafford. Compared to the 27 goals in 19 home games under van Gaal, Mourinho’s men are hardly an improvement.
Then you dig a little deeper. In those 19 home matches under van Gaal, United created 180 chances to score a goal. In Mourinho’s six matches at Old Trafford they’ve already created 89 chances. The comparisons between van Gaal last season and Mourinho this season go on and on. Van Gaal’s side managed an average of just 11.3 shots per game with just 3.8 of those shots on target. Mourinho’s team has less of the ball on average, 54.4% compared to 55.9%, but they are far more adventurous with it. They’ve produced an average of 16.9 shots per game, with at least 5.6 of them on target. Statistically at least, there is an argument to suggest improvement at Manchester United during Mourinho’s short tenure.
And that’s the strange thing about football. It is a constant battle between the statistical evidence and the emotional connection with a specific moment. You can use those facts to say United have improved under Mourinho, but you could equally use a different set of numbers to say that very little has changed. How do you decide? Ask the man in the stands, ask the woman in the pub, ask the boy on the sofa. They are the ones who can tell you what it feels like to watch Mourinho’s men. They can tell you if they enjoy watching their team again, if the excitement is back amongst the crowd, if Pogba and Herrera and Mata have them on the edge of their seats. I’m confident they’d all give you a resounding “yes”.
At the heart of it, football fans aren’t really interested in statistics. That’s why van Gaal didn’t work out. They want their team to win, they want to be entertained in the process and they want to enjoy the sport they love. Knowing that United had 74 shots to their opponent’s 19 in their last three home games doesn’t inspire anyone. The mere fact they had 37 in one game doesn’t bring them any extra joy. The performances do, though. That’s why their failures hurt more this time around.
Just done the math – 74 shots to their opponents' 19 in Man United's last three home league games. Aggregate score: 2-2.
— Tom Williams (@tomwfootball) November 19, 2016
Watching Paul Pogba beat a man in midfield and thunder a shot towards goal is exciting. The sight of Juan Mata and Ander Herrera playing a one-two together and gliding through the opposition ranks is exciting. Antonio Valencia powering down the right flank and whipping in a cross at pace is exciting. All of these things are intangible, unquantifiable. There are no statistics to definitively prove if a team has played well, the numbers can only guide you to that conclusion.
Even writing this article, compiling the numbers became boring. Comparing Manchester United’s possession statistics from this year to last felt somewhat pointless. When you look at the facts, particularly the league table, it is hard to take. When United weren’t winning under van Gaal, they weren’t creating chances and they weren’t scoring goals, so the defeats and the bore draws were easier to accept. Now though, United are creating chances and they are playing well, even if they aren’t scoring goals. There is no comfort to take from those numbers, only regret that is hasn’t resulted in a few extra points and a rapid ascent towards the Premier League summit.
That is why watching Manchester United is so much harder this season. Mourinho has had us all believing again. He has the club thinking and acting like Manchester United again. They are playing well, dominating teams, creating bucket loads of chances and they have their adoring public hanging off the edge of their seats again. So how on earth are they so far off the pace?