The Mirage of Manchester United

They're back! Well, kind of? OK, not quite.

Here’s the late novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald’s review of Manchester United’s 1-0 win away to Tottenham on Sunday: “[T]he test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” United goalkeeper David de Gea once again looked like the octopoid best goalkeeper in the world, and new manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s methods are starting to bear fruit.

Well, here’s me, literarily:

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As we’ve been over before, United fired manager Jose Mourinho back in mid- December. At the time, despite one of the most expensive collections of soccer players ever assembled, the club were playing a joyless, fearful, strategically unsound brand of conservative soccer. The more talented team wins more often when there are more goals in a game, and yet Mourinho had United trying to limit chances on both ends. He’d benched his best player, Paul Pogba, the lodestar of his philosophical obverse: an elite goal-creating midfielder who, in search of chances from a two-way position, also makes his own team more defensively vulnerable. Mourinho lost his job because he couldn’t walk the tight rope he’d turned into floss: He played an un-optimal style, he benched the team’s forward-facing superstar, and he couldn’t win games. On the day he was fired, United were eight points back of fifth-place Arsenal. After finishing in second-place the year before, they’d both scored 26 goals and conceded 26 goals through 17 games.

Rather than replace Mourinho with a new permanent manager midseason or elevate someone from within the club to become interim manager, United brought in Solskjaer, a former Manchester player, to be the interim manager. He left his job managing Molde in his native Norway to temporarily take over his old team. Solskjaer’s scheduled to go back Molde at season’s end—unless United decide to give him the job full-time.

Solskjaer’s pre-United managerial career includes two somewhat successful stints at Molde, sandwiched around a disastrous stretch at Cardiff City, where he presided over a team that was relegated from the Premier League and was then fired early into the following season as Cardiff struggled in the English second-division. (That reminds me: If you’re looking for something compelling to watch, go fire up Sunderland ‘Til I Die on Netflix. I haven’t seen a better snapshot of the kind of deleterious effects gross mismanagement of resources and disinterested ownership can have on a community. It’s, uh, a real pick-me-up!) Except, managing a relegation-battler like Cardiff, where you have less talent than the majority of the league and you need to use just about every coaching trick in the book in order to secure enough points to survive, is much different from helming an uber-wealthy club like United, where you’re trying to raise the ceiling as high as you can.

To paraphrase world-renowned engineer Michael Jordan, the ceiling is the roof is three points per game. Under Solskjaer, United have a maximum-possible 15 points from five league games. Pogba, and the rest of United’s best attacking players are, you know, playing again. You’ll never believe who set up the winner against Tottenham …

Since Solskjaer took over at United, no one else in the league has more than 12 points, and no one has scored more goals (15), conceded fewer (3), or registered a better goal-differential (sorry — I’m gonna make you do that math) than they have. However, the first four games included zero opponents in the top half of the Premier League standings and three in the bottom three. Here’s Michael Caley at The Athletic before Sunday’s game:

So far, these tactics have not cost United. While the Red Devils have been averaging more than 1.0 expected goals conceded per match under Solskjaer, no one has truly exploited this wide open system. It is likely that once United faces better opposition—notably, the team travels to Tottenham on Sunday—the club’s underlying defensive weakness and its aggressive tactics will be exploited.

Well, in an away match to the third-place team in the Premier League, Solskjaer’s side both kept up its aggressive tactics …

… and managed not to concede a single goal! They’re now tied with Arsenal on points, and their odds of finishing in the top four and qualifying for next season’s Champions League, per FiveThirtyEight, have jumped to 20 percent, up from the meager 5 percent when Solskjaer took over.

Aaaaaand now it’s time to pump the breaks. Yes, United beat Tottenham, but the main reason they beat Tottenham is because, as a friend described it to me, “David de Gea is a god sent to destroy scoring goals.” See for yourself:

One of my rules of thumb in assessing a team’s performance is that if a goalkeeper is being described with language that may also be applied to the exploits of, say, a valiant medieval knight of some round table, then his team probably didn’t play all that well! De Dea’s 11 saves against Tottenham were the most in a Premier League game this season. United conceded 1.80 expected goals worth of chances, but even that undersells de Gea’s performance. Football Whispers has a stat called “post-shot expected goals” that takes into account both where the shot was taken from and where it was placed on goal. (If the shot is from a great location but is hit over the bar, it gets a big old zero.) And based on that number, de Gea kept out 2.59 expected goals worth of shots on target!

Now, I have a lot of empathy for United’s starting right fullback, Ashley Young. A bird once shit directly into his mouth during a game, and he didn’t immediately retire and go live in cave! (Young has compartmentalized the incident, refusing to publicly acknowledge that it ever happened. It, most definitely, happened.) But I was dumbfounded by this tweet:

This is a defender praising his team’s overall performance but also praising his keeper’s performance, which, in turn, suggests that the defense, which said defender is a large part of, did not actually perform that well! For the most part, keepers are supposed to be a line of last resort: whether or not you have a good or bad or average shot-stopper in net, most defenses are still trying to limit the quality and quantity of shots they face.

However, De Gea — who, per the consultancy Statsbomb, saved nearly 13 more goals than the average keeper would have last season — is so freaking good that I’ve often wondered if he couldn’t be leveraged as a kind strategic chess piece: If you have him in goal, maybe you can push more bodies forward and hunt out more goals on the attacking end, knowing that De Gea will save a chunk of the higher quality chances you inevitably concede on the other side. Except, that wasn’t the case last year (United were fifth in goals scored, sixth in xG) or on Sunday: From the 65th minute on, United allowed 0.97 xG worth of chances, but only created 0.16. (In case you’re wondering: Overall, per the website Understat, the final xG line was 1.80 to Tottenham, 0.96 to United.) There was no push and pull; just a ton of pushing and a hell of a lot kick saves.

Solskjaer’s United are certainly an improvement on what they were under Mourinho this year; they’re definitely trying to play a more open, attacking style. But the previous manager had also set the bar incredibly low: beating the bad teams and un-benching your best player guaranteed progress. I don’t buy the Tottenham game as proof of any kind of new dawn, though. On most other days, that collection of chances turns into either a draw or more likely a loss for Soslkjaer and Co. Of course, United don’t play another top-10 team until early February. So, for now, here are two contradictory thoughts I’ll try to hold in my mind: I’m still skeptical of this team, and I still think they’ll win their next few games.

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